Is traditional sexual harassment training working?

There are now six states that have mandatory sexual harassment training in the workplace:  California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, and New York.  And most business owners and companies require training outside of those states.  But is it really working to stop sexual harassment in the workplace?  Not dissimilar to the mandatory ethics training required for SOX compliance, data suggests it is not working and that businesses should change the focus from compliance training on harassment to creating programs that focus on a respectful workplace founded in civility.

In 1986, courts first ruled that sexual harassment was an illegal form of discrimination.[1] The Vinson ruling gave the EEOC the power to enforce any violations and helped “fuel the training trend.”  Protection against sexual harassment is covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Regulations highlight two types of sexual harassment:

  • Quid Pro Quo: Unwelcomed sexual advance, request for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when submission to such conduct is made, either explicitly or implicitly, as a term or condition of employment.
  • Hostile Work Environment: Supervisor, co-worker, or non-employee interferes with work performance by creating intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

By 1997, 75% of American companies[2] had developed mandatory training programs for all employees to explain what behaviors the law forbids and how to file a complaint.  But research showed that harassment training makes men more likely to blame the victims.  Almost twenty years later, in a 2016 report, the EEOC found that trainings have failed as a prevention tool because they are “too focused on simply avoiding legal liability.” Highlighted in the 2016 EEOC Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace:

  • 60% of women say that in the workplace they experience “unwanted sexual attention, sexual coercion, sexually crude conduct, or sexist comments.”
  • 90% of employees never file a formal complaint after experiencing harassment.
  • 75% never complained to their employer about the harassment.

Meanwhile, ABC News/Washington Post found in a 2011 poll that 47% of Americans said they felt sexual harassment was a serious problem in the workplace, and that number rose to 64% by 2017.

So, what can companies do to reverse the trend and begin addressing harassment at a systemic level?

  • Clear values and codes of conduct: This begins at the top of any organization but requires collaboration and buy in from all employees.  What are the attributes that make your workplace unique?  What behaviors allow your employees to perform their best work every day?  If you have not revisited your values in years, or if you do not have stated values, take the opportunity to reengage with your employees to define the behavioral anchors that are expected of everyone.  Once this is done, you can begin focusing on creating strong programs to reinforce your values and build a foundation that is focused on a respectful workplace.
  • What is Respectful Workplace training? This program varies from company to company because it is unique to the mission, vision and values that define your workplace and reason for existing.  It includes your specific policies about harassment, discrimination, and retaliation, and how to file a complaint.  Standard elements in any Respectful Workplace program include:
    • Civility: This is an important component of any program as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission[3] cites research that incivility is often an antecedent to workplace harassment, as it creates a climate of “general derision and disrespect in which harassing behaviors are tolerated.”  Significant correlations were found between incivility and gender harassment.
      • In practice, civility looks like:
        • Recognizing common ground with other people.
        • Understanding and appreciating differences.​
        • Fostering an inclusive environment​.
        • Communication​
        • Cooperation to achieve common goals​.
        • Personal responsibility for maintaining a respectful environment and questioning inappropriate conduct.
    • Bystander Awareness and intervention tools. Invite employees to engage when they see a potentially harmful situation or interaction.  Done properly, this bolsters the values of the organization and reinforces the message that it is everyone’s responsibility to create a respectful workplace.  The “5 Ds” of bystander intervention include:
      • Distract: Take an indirect approach to deescalate the situation.
      • Delegate: Report the incident to someone who has the power or influence to follow up.
      • Document: Take pictures or videos of the situation.
      • Delay: Check in with the victim to see if they are okay and if they would like support to address the situation.
      • Direct: Speak up, be firm and clear, but do not escalate the situation.
    • Education about the policies and procedures that prohibit discrimination and harassment.

While this all may seem like common sense, it is surprising how impactful respectful workplace programs can be when focused on professionalism and integrity.  A respectful organization promotes diversity, encourages communication, and insists on respect from all employees, no matter their position in the organizational chart.

[1] 1986 case Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, which involved a bank vice president who raped an employee on “several occasions.”

[2] According to an article in Harvard Business Review

[3] Sharon Masling, Chief of Staff EEOC