It’s Time To Double Down On Sexual Harassment Training

As the workplace changes and hybrid models gain ground, make sure your training is keeping up.
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Workplace dynamics are changing—and training needs to change with them. With the reopening of offices and the return to traditional or hybrid workplaces, one of these changes needs to be a renewed focus on sexual harassment training.

Why? Because the problem of sexual harassment in the office persists, although perpetrated in different ways since the start of the pandemic. According to a recent survey of 1,200 U.S. employees by TalentLMS and Purple Campaign, over 29% have experienced unwelcome behavior over video calls, text messages, email or other online platforms.

It’s clear that the current approach of most companies to anti-harassment culture is no longer effective. Yet, companies are also provided with a great opportunity: to invest in creating an anti-harassment culture that’s relevant to this new world of work.

Companies need to stop viewing sexual harassment training as yet another box to check

In many cases, especially in the U.S. states where sexual harassment training is mandated by law, training is seen as checking another box in order to be compliant. 

Being compliant is, of course, very important. But approaching any kind of training only through a compliance lens is not the solution. Employees can tell when the training material you provide them is well thought through with an aim to engage and influence behaviors—and when it’s simply put together using abstract terms and unengaging content so that the company can be done with it. In the latter case, employees will have difficulty connecting to it, and the training program won’t be effective.

That being said, offering perfunctory sexual harassment training is still better than offering no training at all. Twenty-five percent of people from the survey by TalentLMS and Purple Campaign had to be screened out because their employers did not provide them with any sexual harassment training. This translates to 1 out of 4 employees not getting any training for an issue that is widespread and persistent.

Sexual harassment training programs need to be revamped for the new world of work

As the new work environment is shifting toward a hybrid workplace, employees’ short-term and long-term needs are shifting as well. These needs should be addressed in order for them to feel valued by their employers.

One such need is psychological safety: the feeling that they can speak up about things that are happening to them without risk. Psychological safety is hard to establish even in an office environment where everyone is physically present—and working from home and in hybrid working environments complicate the matter further. How will employees know their managers have their back when it comes to reporting a sexual harassment incident?

As we’ll see below, offering sexual harassment training goes a long way toward making employees feel safer.

To ensure your sexual harassment training is effective, follow these four best practices:

1. Address the gray areas

Sexual harassment is not always straightforward. In many cases, the victims of sexual harassment may not know what exactly they experienced and if it was indeed inappropriate behavior, as it may not fall under the “black and white” cases of what constitutes harassment.

That’s why developing a training program that uses a nuanced vocabulary and examines real-life scenarios is fundamental. Using everyday examples of behaviors that constitute harassment and offering a framework for dealing with them can make a significant difference for those who experience sexual harassment—or witness it happen—whether in person or online.

2. Take online harassment into account

When working remotely, it’s often difficult for employers to witness incidents of sexual harassment. If the inappropriate behavior takes place in a one-on-one context (whether it’s a Zoom call or a private chat) there are no bystanders to provide a third-party report. Very often, this leaves the victim feeling isolated—and leads employers to believe that the problem doesn’t exist.

The reasons why online sexual harassment is so widespread are many. For one, remote work environments make silent bullying and harassment of all kinds easier to perpetrate and “get away with it.” And in many cases, the lack of visual cues makes unwelcome behaviors harder to identify and challenge. For instance, if an employee made an inappropriate comment about a colleague’s looks in a physical office space, they would be able to ascertain from the other person’s body language or facial expression that their remark was problematic. But interacting online, particularly via text, removes that possibility.

It is then very important that employers provide dedicated training on how to handle harassment in online communication and collaboration platforms. They’re here to stay, so showcasing examples of sexual harassment behavior that can occur online will help employees know what to do when it happens again.

3. Replace outdated training materials

Your training materials can make or break your training efforts. You need to use language that is current and clear—and delivery methods that take employee engagement into consideration. Especially now that, on a global level, employees are still so burned-out after the pandemic that employee engagement has decreased by two percentage points.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should discard everything. The lifespan of training materials can vary. But if your training videos are more than a decade old it’s almost certain employees won’t relate to them anymore. This is especially critical for entry-level employees who are joining the workforce in a remote or hybrid working capacity for the first time. They’ll be highly influenced by the training they receive, which can determine how they perceive their new company and its culture.

4. Focus on sexual harassment prevention, not just reaction

Learning how to spot harassment in online and face-to-face interactions, who it should be reported to and how these incidents are handled are all critical parts of a successful training program. However, this implies a reactive approach to sexual harassment at work, not a proactive one.

Instead of only teaching your employees what to do after the fact, make sure to also teach them how to stop these incidents from happening in the first place. This is also a great opportunity to familiarize your employees with your company’s sexual harassment policies.

Companies need to understand the many benefits to offering harassment training

When it comes to educating employees on the fundamentals of sexual harassment in the workplace and how incidents should be reported, training has an overwhelmingly positive effect.

Data shows that sexual harassment training makes all employees feel more valued as individuals, more productive and more likely to stay with their company. Psychological safety, which we’ve seen is a very important need that employees have in hybrid workplaces, is also improved significantly by training.

Here are some more insights into the positive effects of sexual harassment training:

It’s clear that investing in sexual harassment training for your employees will only be beneficial for all involved—including for your company’s growth and productivity.

Final thoughts

Training has great power—when done right. Doubling down on sexual harassment training as your employees start heading back to the office can reduce instances of inappropriate behaviors. In addition, it can improve understanding about the type of conduct that is (not) acceptable, whether in an online or in a physical workplace.

And while there is still a long way to go in educating employers and employees’ alike, making sexual harassment training a vital part of every company’s yearly curriculum is a great and necessary first step.

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