How to make sexual harassment training effective

How do you make sexual harassment training effective?

It’s a question that has plagued HR leads since the passage of the Civil Rights Act’s amendment banning sex discrimination. Since that time, only a handful states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine and New York) have made employer sexual harassment training mandatory.

Still, sexual harassment happens every day; while not representative of all incidents occurring, recent data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suggests that 1 in 10 charges filed are sexual harassment-related.

Likewise, analysis of EEOC data shows that sexual harassment is pervasive across industries. For employers keen to fill in the gaps and reduce incidents of harassment on the job, ensuring that learning materials go beyond compliance and focus on workplace culture is a great start, one labor expert said.

Lean into bystander training

To that point, EEOC Commissioner Kalpana Kotagal told HR Dive, “There’s a fair bit of data these days about training — what works and what doesn’t.” Kotagal said that bystander training can be helpful here.

A resource Kotagal recommended was the set of documents that came out of the 2016 EEOC taskforce on sexual harassment; this document also provides bystander training strategies.

“One is enabling bystanders to recognize potentially problematic behaviors on the spot. The second is motivating them to step in and take action,” Kotagal said. “The third is conducting skill-building exercises that provide bystanders with the tools and the confidence to intervene.”

Workers can spot a problem, but they’re not always motivated to take action, Kotagal continued.

Emphasize the importance of follow-up action

As HR experts have emphasized before, internal reporting mechanisms are necessary — especially since mediation can resolve issues before a complainant files an EEOC case. (Mediation can also be facilitated in part by EEOC investigators.)

Kotagal underscored the importance of a strong reporting system because managers are often the ones abusing their power, she said. Training can touch on where employees can file complaints.

An alternative to a manager, for example, can be an online reporting portal or an ombudsman. The commissioner also touted the ability of HR to intervene. “HR departments that are effectively set up and are independent can be a really important reporting structure,” she said. 

Notably, only 66% of women surveyed for Deloitte’s workplace report who said they experienced sexual harassment said they reported that harassment. As Kotagal told HR Dive previously, “multiple avenues” are needed, in case the perpetrator in a situation is a manager. 

Experts have recommended options such as a phone tip line or an app for reporting workplace discrimination

Going beyond compliance

Even if training is required by a state, “there are anti-harassment trainings that are effective and anti-harassment trainings that are not effective,” Kotagal said. From her perspective, one that’s effective will address: 

  • An employer’s policy
  • What the complaint process looks like
  • Some real-world examples of prohibited conduct
  • The employee’s rights

“That’s different than the sort of overly legalistic training that focuses on case law or legal definitions,” she said. Additionally, the effectiveness of training depends on whether they’re offered on a regular basis.