Is Your Sexual Harassment Training Designed to Drive a Culture of Change?

“Many of us want to be heard, very few of us want to be identified, but all of us want this culture to change.” – Anne Montgomery

The quotation above comes from a former intern to Jeff Kruse, the Oregon State Senator who resigned in 2018 after allegations of sexual misconduct made against him were published. At a newly created Committee on Culture, Montgomery told state lawmakers how a “code of silence” operated at the Oregon State Capitol building, and described a longstanding culture of sexual harassment. She also told lawmakers about how difficult it was to report the incidents of sexual harassment, and how coming forward had cost her her career in the building.

Unfortunately, Montgomery’s story is far from an isolated incident. In a 2018 national survey, it was found that 27% of women and 14% of men had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace. Some key findings in that report were that:

  • 50% of women and 64% of men said that the harassment hurt their career.
  • 52% percent changed job because of the harassment.
  • Only 25% of women strongly agreed they could report an incident to their employers without fear.
  • Only 30% of women and 53% of men strongly agreed that their employer handled the incident properly.

What these statistics indicate is that although many workplaces claim that they are trying to prevent sexual harassment, they are not doing enough to truly change their workplace culture. So what’s going wrong?

Meeting Sexual Harassment Training Requirements – Just Box-Checking?

One reason why employees are not being adequately supported is that in some cases companies are only doing the bare minimum to meet their state’s legal requirements for harassment prevention training. What this often leads to, however, is training that may technically meet the mandated requirements but that does little to affect the workplace culture.

An example of this ensued at the Oregon State Capitol. When sexual harassment training was provided for legislative staffers there, they found the training was not only inadequate but also offensive and upsetting to some attendees. Many felt that the training was merely a box-checking exercise. According to Laura Hanson, chief of staff of a state Senator in the Capitol, “The trainer encouraged people not to report unwanted advances, inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment, or risk being branded a whistleblower.” Clearly, attitudes like this do not belong in an effective harassment prevention training course and are contrary to a workplace culture of openness and transparency.

New York State and California – Leaders of Change

Another, more obvious, reason workplace cultures are not changing is because many states don’t have any legislation making harassment prevention training compulsory. But this is not an excuse for companies to do nothing, or to wait to be forced to take action. Instead, companies should take a proactive stance against harassment in the workplace. To help them in this effort, businesses should learn from the guiding principles and examples being set by legislation in states such as New York and California.

For example, in New York State, anti-harassment training must be provided by all companies, regardless of size. All employees (not just supervisors and managers) must complete the training, and training must be provided annually. In addition, the state legislation requires the training to be interactive and participatory.

In California, employers with at least five employees must provide one hour of sexual harassment prevention training to all non-supervisors, as well as two hours of sexual harassment prevention training to all supervisors. In addition, all current employees must be trained by January 1, 2020, and once every two years thereafter. And, according to the legislation, this training must include realistic examples of harassment, based on sexual orientation, gender expression, and gender identity. It should also address discrimination, retaliation, and abusive conduct.

Harassment Prevention Training – the Foundation of Change

Although sexual harassment training will never stamp out inappropriate behavior completely, it is an essential tool in teaching employees expected behaviors and conduct. The training should clarify any potential “gray areas” and clearly outline what does and does not constitute sexual harassment.

What’s more, the training should create a better environment for victims. It should outline, step by step, the designated complaint process, including different reporting methods and timelines for investigation and follow-up actions. It must make it clear that any reports of misconduct will be treated in the strictest confidence and that the victim will not suffer any retribution for coming forward.

Finally, harassment prevention training should be engaging and relevant to the audience so that it drives the desired behaviors. To be engaging, the training should ideally be industry and role-specific, include realistic scenarios, and be user friendly.

Providing effective sexual harassment training for all employees won’t change a company’s culture overnight, but it does send out an important message. It makes it clear that victims will be taken seriously, and that the old days of “codes of silence” will no longer be tolerated.

View Sexual Harassment Training Requirements in US states

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