Rethinking Anti-Sexual Harassment Training in the Workplace

By Randah McKinnie

Since the start of the #MeToo movement, organizations have been taking a fresh look at their anti-sexual harassment policies and training in the workplace. For training in particular, the challenge is no less formidable today than it was in 2016 when the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released an extensive study on general harassment in the workplace—especially considering the commission itself has questioned whether training generally works (and suggested it may even do more harm than good). With limited data available on what works and what doesn’t, it’s difficult for anyone to know which training methods to recommend or embrace. As someone who’s worked closely with HR and legal for 20 years in order to design eLearning technology that supports their eLearning teams, I’ve come to believe that there is only one truth when it comes to training: there is no single truth. What works for one trainer and one learner may not work for another—and for so many reasons.

There are some common missteps that almost always result in failure. The biggest problem, in my experience, is trainers design programs that prioritize the requirements of the regulators over driving behavioral change. Unfortunately, what people realistically need from training in order to adopt a more intolerant mindset when it comes to sexual harassment goes far beyond what must be presented to assure regulatory compliance. As the EEOC itself wrote, “Much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool—it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability.” Training commonly shortchanges workers in other ways, too. Sometimes fault lies with general training flaws that would sink any session regardless of topic. Engagement, for instance, continues to be a critical yet elusive pursuit for many trainers. But boosting engagement in anti-sexual harassment is particularly tricky as it requires an ability to “go there” without triggering discomfort or ridicule or, even worse, causing learners to feel like they’re being subjected to sexual harassment within the anti-harassment training itself.

One thing the EEOC and many other experts agree on: these training sessions are most effective live and in person. However, for many organizations that depend on remote, dispersed workforces, it’s a luxury they simply can’t afford. So, they turn to virtual live training, which can be extremely effective regardless of the subject matter, but they also require a unique set of parameters for success. Another challenge, particularly with on-demand, or poorly designed live virtual training, is the student’s tendency to multitask. Often they will turn the volume down, check voice and email, glancing at the presentation (pushed to the side of the screen) from time to time while working on other projects. Overcoming this tendency not only requires post-training testing to ensure the information was absorbed, but a live virtual training approach that demands high interactivity to ensure the audience is engaged and the information is absorbed. When designed and executed well, the material and the experience permeates minds and, ultimately, the organization’s workforce culture.

So how does a …read more

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