Sexual Harassment Training: Does it work?
March 9, 2014 6:24 AM   Subscribe

My workplace has never had a sexual harassment training program. Is it worth me making waves to get one implemented? I don't want to create friction for something that will just be mocked and not actually change people's behavior. Are there training programs that are better/more effective than others?

I work in a small non-profit. It's pretty disorganized management-wise, our "HR person" is actually just another coworker with that tacked onto her job title. It's the sort of place where if you want something done, you do it yourself.

It has come to my attention that many of my female coworkers have experienced sexual harassment in the form of inappropriate touching that makes them uncomfortable at work. It is widely known, amongst workers at least, who the common offenders are and no one to my knowledge has filed formal complaints.

A recent incident involving a volunteer spurred me to speak to a coworkers boss about his inappropriate sexual advances. The volunteer did not want to file a complaint, I took it upon myself to take action. I also spoke with our volunteer coordinator who mentioned to me that we ought to have sexual harassment training but that it was a very contentious topic, because they'll tell you never to "hug coworkers." My organization works with volunteers and the general public, including children. We really should have this type of sensitivity training.

Does sexual harassment training actually reduce sexual harassment? I'm not ready to stick my neck out for something that won't change anything. We are in an area that is rife with machismo and generally not culturally progressive. So I can already imagine the derision that the training will inspire.

If I do choose to push to get the training, how do I go about it? Are there organizations that offer more effective trainings than others?
posted by abirdinthehand to Work & Money (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

You might consider raising the spectre of liability -- if there's already been one incident, a lack of response on the part of the organization could look really bad if there's future litigation.

(As an aside, the actual training will make a big difference. My current job has a program of online training that is fairly accommodating of situational ambiguity, while a previous one instructed us not to fax people sexual cartoons. Not a big problem since a minority of our young workforce even knows how to use a fax machine.)
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:35 AM on March 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

Any type of training that is well executed makes a difference. Especially in this case: harassment is not merely an interaction between perpetrator and victim (desired by one, undesired by the other), but very much a matter of an uneducated crowd that routinely just happens to turn their heads the other way.
posted by Namlit at 6:43 AM on March 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Your organisation should introduce this kind of training under the umbrella of liability protection. You should, under the same umbrella, bring in training about safely working with children.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:44 AM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Since your organization has an actual set of issues it would be helpful to have the training. The best impact I have seen where the training worked was when there were ambiguous situations and it cleared up how things could or would be interpreted. Where I thought things failed was obsessing over "obvious" situations, e.g., "rape is bad. Don't do it." However, your situation with inappropriate touching, means the "obvious" will need to clearly messaged.

Your organization, if it continues tolerating this kind of behavior, will not be an organization that people will want to work at nor give resources towards. Further, your management is hampered from terminating people for inappropriate behavior, because they did not clearly set guidelines and expectations of behavior.

There are actual legal and ethical ramifications if this behavior is not addressed.
posted by jadepearl at 6:46 AM on March 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Sexual harassment training will show perps that it's wrong; it will show victims they don't have to take it; it will show management there are huge liabilities of letting it continue. Any one of these outcomes is beneficial. At least two are likely. Do it.
posted by alms at 6:47 AM on March 9, 2014 [8 favorites]

This kind of training is most effective in tandem with other efforts, such as a commitment from leadership to confront and address this behavior. The training can let people know where the boundaries are, but then the boundaries must be enforced or nothing will change.

This may require separate training for your management to learn how to deal with these issues (including possibly a script to use, and clear expectations for what kind of discipline is to be used and when termination is appropriate).

If this is an ongoing problem, the perps are very likely to try to continue after training, and leaders in your organization have to be willing and equipped to address it each time it happens.
posted by jeoc at 6:58 AM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Applause for trying to tackle this issue in your workplace. I admire you for taking this on.

What your organization needs, first and foremost, is a policy prohibiting harassment in your work environment.

All types of harassment, including (but not limited to) sexual harassment, must be addressed in this policy.

An effective harassment policy should:
- define harassing behavior;
- state the organization's commitment to a harassment-free workplace;
- provide employees with a clear complaint procedure;
- address confidentiality and retaliation;
- advise employees and volunteers that compliance is a condition of employment;
- spell out the disciplinary consequences for non-compliance.

All of this must be match up with any applicable laws in your area, which vary from state to state, of course.

Then comes training.

Will the employees/volunteers roll their eyes at the video of the Big Bad Bossman patting the behind of the Helpless Secretary?

Training material has come a long way and it does not have to be corny. But yes, the kind of people who harass in the workplace are often the kind of people who smirk at an organization's attempt to remove these words and actions from the culture.

Bottom line - it doesn't matter. Your organization can declare that this type of conduct is not tolerated. The smirking will stop when they see that the the policy is enforced.

Your in-name-only HR person does not have to go this alone. There is a wealth of information out there on laws, policies, effective procedures, etc. There are HR consultants who do this type of thing; PEO organizations who specialize in it; and trainers for hire. The resources you need are there.
posted by falldownpaul at 7:25 AM on March 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

There's a lot of people out there who don't base their behavior on what they think is right or wrong, but rather on what they think the people around them expect. They're sort of ethically lazy, expecting other people to dictate the terms of appropriate behavior. If they see that sexualized behavior towards clients and co-workers is the norm then they'll engage in it as well. If they think they could get in trouble for it they'll stay far away from it. They keep with the status quo. Change the status quo and these folks will change along with it. For this sort of person, some sexual harassment training could be very helpful, especially if it is done as a large group where they can look at other people and see that they're all getting the same message.

But like a lot of other people are pointing out, without a sexual harassment policy or consequences for breaking that policy, training will be of limited usefulness. That's especially true for the offenders that are doing it because they get off on doing things that they know are wrong, or who have somehow convinced themselves that it's ethically right. Those are the folks you really need to worry about, so I agree that it makes sense to work on hammering out the policy and the consequences first, and then work on getting some training after that.

Good luck! I really hope you're able to solve this problem.
posted by sam_harms at 7:42 AM on March 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

People can't pretend that they don't know they are doing something unacceptable if they had to attend training about how that exact thing is unacceptable. And victims feel more justified in speaking out. People might make fun or get angry, but it's still helpful to set the tone that "this is not acceptable".
posted by windykites at 8:00 AM on March 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Training or no, your management needs to get straight on what the laws are at least from a liability standpoint. Depending on what state you're in, your coworker's boss, and the entire organization could be in violation of the law. In California, I think it's actionable if a boss knows of an inappropriate behavior and does not act.
posted by pazazygeek at 8:05 AM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This is our sexual harassment policy from the employee manual. While technically it meets falldownpaul's list, I doubt anyone ever reads it. Also the complaint/discipline section leaves something to be desired. It's so vague and informal sounding.

Sexual Harassment

It is the policy of [company name] for all individuals to enjoy a work atmosphere free from all forms of discrimination and prohibited harassment, including sexual harassment. Sexual harassment infringes on an individual's right to a comfortable work environment and is a form of misconduct which undermines the integrity of the employment relationship. No individual, male or female, should be subject to unsolicited or unwelcome sexual overtures of conduct, either
verbal or physical.

Sexual harassment does not mean occasional compliments of a socially-acceptable nature. Sexual harassment refers to conduct which is offensive to the individual, harmful to morale, or interferes with the effectiveness of [company name] business. Such conduct is prohibited. This conduct includes repeated, offensive sexual flirtations, advances or propositions, continued or repeated verbal sexual abuse, explicit or degrading verbal comments about another individual or that individual's appearance, the display of sexually-suggestive materials, or any offensive or abusive physical conduct. It also includes taking or refusing to take any personnel action on the basis of an individual's submission to or refusal of sexual overtures.

Procedures for Bringing Discrimination/Sexual Harassment
Complaints or Occurrences to Management

All questions, complaints, knowledge of prohibited events, or allegations concerning discrimination or sexual harassment should be brought to the attention of an employee's supervisor or the director within 48 hours of the incident in order that a proper investigation may take place. Each situation will be fully and promptly investigated and, where appropriate, corrective action will be taken. [Company name] will take no retaliatory measures against any employee who makes a complaint of discrimination or sexual harassment. Once notified, management will take prompt and disciplinary action against any person engaging in discrimination or sexual harassment. Such action will include appropriate discipline, up to and including termination.

posted by abirdinthehand at 8:09 AM on March 9, 2014

Rising to the level of touching? I may be coddled in my white-collar office job where we don't interact with the public, but that goes way beyond what I would consider normal in a merely "disorganized" office. Presumably, locating the people responsible and firing them for cause would be effective, regardless of how they felt about sexual harassment training, no?
posted by wnissen at 8:37 AM on March 9, 2014

I think the real value of a training is if it is designed to address and clarify ambiguous situations. Things people could legitimately be unsure about, like hugging, complimenting, comments re personal lives, things done in the context of a joke. That's where a vague policy is not going to be helpful and where a training with examples could be helpful.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:14 AM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I brought this type of training into my former workplace a little while ago. We worked with the company that already ran our Employee and Family Assistance Program. They reviewed our policy and tailored an existing module of their Harassment training to suit our needs.

We also had them create a little extra info for managers and supervisors to help them understand their responsibilities.

I found that even though the session seemed to be mostly "common sense", it generated a lot of discussion and questions. There are so many grey areas when it comes to harassment that it's great just to get people talking and more aware.
posted by caroo at 9:33 AM on March 9, 2014

OP noted an issue with volunteers. Sexual harassment of (and by!) non-employees (customers, clients, volunteers, etc.) is quite complex legally and requires a lot of nuance in policy if the nature of the organization creates a significant risk of it.
posted by MattD at 10:38 AM on March 9, 2014

There's a couple of problems with training:
1. It's going to be awkward for people who have been harassed to sit in a room with the perpetrators and discuss sexual topics.
2. When you have disciplinary problems with specific employees, it is better to discipline the employees instead of forcing everyone to sit through training.

The right thing to do would be to discipline the offending employees and then hold training. This would show that your workplace is serious about zero tolerance and is taking steps to correct /prevent problem behaviours. Without discipline, the policy and training is just hot air as the known perpetrators are allowed to walk away from their past behaviours scot free. That's the wrong message.
posted by crazycanuck at 11:04 AM on March 9, 2014

The problem with any sort of "training" seminars/classes - whether it be sexual harassment, CPR instruction, or emergency evacuation procedures - is that the majority of the employees are only attending because it is mandatory. They're daydreaming and doodling and texting and such during the presentation. Offenders aren't going to recognize themselves in the harassing situations displayed as examples, and a lifetime of thinking that patting female co-workers on the butt or calling them "sweet cheeks" is acceptable (or even endearing) behavior isn't going to change after one class. Most likely the only solution is for the company/organization to simply put in writing what type of behavior is liable to result in disciplinary action and have every employee sign off on it to make sure they've read and understood it. That same document should also mention the penalties that will be enforced if any employee violates the rules. Too many companies (especially small ones, and I've worked in many) will hand out booklets or show Powerpoint presentations as to why Sexual Harassment Is Bad, but it is only as a matter of rote - nothing ever really happens to the sales exec who brings in X amount of revenue every month when he gets too touchy/feely while asking a female clerical worker to type this up and get it faxed out by 5:00. Only if management is willing to "rock the boat" and discipline offenders will the workplace situation change for the better.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:58 AM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes, it's worth it for you to make waves, especially now that you know of "many" alleged instances of it having occurred. If you are in management, your potential liability increases if you don't respond appropriately with the knowledge you now have.

Derision from the board or management on the topic of sexual harassment training when there are "many" alleged instances of sexual harassment is a red flag, and perhaps a sign that you should be looking for another organization that takes its non-profit purpose a little more seriously. I can understand resistance, because it might represent an increase in workload, but derision is an inappropriate response.

I took an online course that was required by the part-time work I was doing for Some Big University. It was self-paced, self-tested and surprisingly interesting. People who complain about it being "politically correct" or prohibiting hugs might be surprised how wrong they are.

Since it was self-paced, it was geared to be convenient to me, and when I was finished the HR staff at SBU got notification that I had finished it successfully.
posted by the Real Dan at 12:47 PM on March 9, 2014

Like the Real Dan ^^^ we have to do an online training each year. It's kind of tedious, but almost universally people who take it find it helpful and enlightening. It's the kind of thing where you progress through screens and scenarios, and then at the end you take a little quiz that you keep taking until you get 100%. Some of the scenarios are ambiguous-seeming; e.g. someone tells a questionable joke and everyone laughs, does that still count as a problem? Then it explains when it is or isn't a problem based on law and/or company policy. Though I doubt that they are inexpensive, I bet these types of tools could be available to non-profits at some kind of reduced fee.
posted by gubenuj at 1:52 PM on March 9, 2014

Response by poster: Do either of you recall the company that this training is from?

I found some similar sounding resources through EEOC and OSHA that look to be inexpensive.
posted by abirdinthehand at 2:50 PM on March 9, 2014

I think ours was from Inspired eLearning, or something similar-looking, based on my quick look at their demos.
posted by gubenuj at 7:29 PM on March 9, 2014

Perhaps I have spent too long at highly political organisations, but it seems to me that one advantage of mandatory training would be that no-one can claim afterwards that they didn't realise their behaviour was harassment. A shot across the bows of any harassers.
posted by danteGideon at 11:58 AM on April 10, 2014

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