One of the key responsibilities a compliance officer has is to maintain a workplace free from sexual harassment. Not only does this unethical behavior lead to low employee morale and reduced productivity, but it can also result in lawsuits and hefty penalties if it is shown that the company in question has not taken the required preventative steps to stamp it out.
One of the tools at a compliance officer’s disposal is, of course, training. But what should this sexual harassment training look like, and what should it include? Many states have very specific regulations – such as AB 1825 in California and the upcoming New York state sexual harassment prevention laws – in relation to the content and duration of this training. However, what these state laws and others like them do not address is the different contexts in which sexual harassment takes place depending on the industry.
Obviously, sexual harassment means the same thing in every context: the unwelcome touch, remark or look is harmful, regardless of whether you work in an office or on a factory floor! What’s more, the principles of stopping sexual harassment, as well as the basic steps you can take as an organization and as an individual to prevent it, are universal. However, to make training truly meaningful for your employees, you also need to consider what unwelcome behaviors might look like in the context of the environment and industry that they work in.
Sexual Harassment – A Cross-Industry Issue
While many off-the-shelf anti-harassment courses do a good job of explaining what exactly constitutes sexual harassment, the scenarios they present are often set in an office environment. However, the reality is that most of these cases take place outside of the typical office setting. According to a 2017 survey carried out by the Center for American Progress, which looked at 41,250 charges of sexual harassment filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) between 2005 and 2015, the majority of the claims were found in typically non-office industries, some of which are outlined below:
• Accommodation and food services – 14.2%
• Retail trade – 13.4%
• Manufacturing – 11.7%
• Health care and social assistance – 11.4%
• Transportation and warehousing – 4.9%
The implication of these findings is that by not tailoring your training to a specific industry (and instead solely using standard office-based scenarios) your anti-harassment course could come across as being irrelevant, unrealistic, and, ultimately, unhelpful.
The survey’s author, Jocelyn Frye, also points out that:
“More than one-quarter of sexual harassment charges were filed in industries with large numbers of service-sector workers, including many low-wage jobs that are often occupied by women.”
With such a large percentage of potentially vulnerable employees working in service sectors, developing customized training to address this issue may be an important consideration if your business operates in a related industry.
Addressing Retaliation in the Workplace
In addition to sexual harassment, another related issue plaguing companies across all industries is the problem of retaliation, with the survey highlighting the following finding:
“Nearly three-quarters of sexual harassment charges include an allegation of retaliation either upon being filed or later on in an investigation, suggesting that many victims face retribution when they come forward.”
Clearly, this is a troubling statistic – employees should be able to report in confidence any case of harassment, whether it is a personal experience or one that they see or hear, without the fear of retaliation. To prevent this problem, your anti-harassment training should explain what retaliation consists of using real-life examples that are relevant to your industry. It should also outline what actions to take in case the retaliation continues.
Training and Transparency
So, you might ask yourself, why is it so important to create sexual harassment and retaliation training scenarios based in, for example, a hotel staff room – if that is your industry sector – rather than a standard meeting room? Is it just to maintain your employees’ interest long enough that they’ll finish the course, thereby complying with regulations? Of course not. The main aim behind providing industry-specific sexual harassment training – training that is meaningful and understandable through realistic situations that your employees will recognize – is to show that your organization is being genuine, transparent, and honest about the particular risks involved in your industry.
Some companies, however, are going one step further to show their openness and transparency. For instance, Microsoft has recently ended closed-door arbitration hearings in sexual harassment cases, meaning that these claims can no longer be kept out of sight and swept under the carpet. This is a vital policy change and one that will hopefully be adopted by many more companies across all industries.
As explained above, it’s crucial that your anti-harassment training is relevant to your organization’s industry – real-life, recognizable scenarios help reinforce your key learning objectives and show that you are open about the potential risks involved in your sector. But remember – don’t allow your assumptions about class in your industry, i.e. about blue-collar and white-collar workers, to overly influence your scenario design – in relative terms, construction site harassment is no more or less likely than trading floor harassment. That’s why your compliance training should aim to strike the right balance between standard office-based scenarios and more industry-specific ones – a balance that accurately reflects the roles and needs of everyone in your organization.