There is no evidence that most anti-sexual harassment training actually prevents sexual harassment so how can workplaces stop it?
About half of all working women report being sexual harassed at work at some point during their working lives. This is true whether the statistics come from the UK, the US or Europe. Figures like this are underlined by the continuous flow of allegations brought to light as a result of the #metoo movement.
The question for many workplaces is how to stop it. For many, the answer is sexual harassment training. In 2017, for example when two female lawmakers testified about sexual misconduct involving unnamed sitting members of Congress, the House implemented a requirement that all members of staff undergo anti-sexual harassment training. Even more recently, the US State of California enacted a law to expand employers’ sexual harassment training requirements. Previously, employers with 50 or more employees had to provide their supervisory personnel with two hours of sexual harassment prevention training every two years. The new law dropped the number to any firm having five or more employees and requiring even non-supervisors to receive training. And it is now common for government agencies, universities and other employers to implement similar policies, with over 90 per cent of US employers having some form of training in place.
Many organisations are now taking a pre-emptive approach to sexual harassment. When, and not if, the inevitable claim happens they want to be able to point to actions they have taken to prevent it. The only problem is that no evidence that most anti-sexual harassment training actually prevents sexual harassment or that it makes an employer any less liable for harassment claims by employees.
Comprehensive reviews of typical training programs suggest that under test conditions, men with a propensity to harass may be less likely to inappropriately touch a colleague, but the training does not affect their long term attitudes at all. According to the researchers there is “absolutely no scientific basis for concluding that harassment training fosters employee tolerance and greatly alters workplace culture.” They also caution that there is a risk that the existence of training sends the erroneous message that the workplace is a harassment-free environment, when it is likely to be nothing of the sort.
The problem lies in the nature of the training according to a recent study conducted by Assistant Professor Elizabeth Tippett from the University of Oregon School of Law. She analyzed 74 current and historical training programs spanning a period for 1980 to 2016. Her research suggested that harassment training solidified into a genre in the 1980s and 1990s. It became a box ticking exercise (usually) consisting of a video based on an authority figure summarizing the law and then acting out a set of scenarios focusing largely on contrived situations rather than using real data applicable to the employer delivering the training. Tippett notes, “a substantial portion of examples trainers use, involving sexual comments, jokes, and emails, represent borderline conduct that may not constitute harassment. Trainers do not always provide an explanation of whether the conduct would qualify as harassment, which may lead participants to infer that such conduct would be strictly prohibited.”
The result is training which is either ignored because it portrays behavior which isn’t harassment or, results in workplaces which become hypersensitive to the point that productivity is impaired because people are scared of interacting with women at all.
Researchers have suggested a number of ways of improving the effectiveness of anti-harassment training borrowed from research into school-based anti-bullying programs. One of the most effective of those programs is the one designed by 87-year-old Swedish professor of psychology, Dan Olweus, one of the clear leaders in bullying research. His program is designed to curtail any behavior that results from the power imbalance rather than focusing on any given expression of it. In short his program says set rules, stick to them, monitor compliance vigilantly and punish any violation consistently. Importantly, the entire community must cooperate in reducing the behaviour. A common feature of effective anti-bullying programs is ensuring that the community reacts against bullying. If the bully thinks bullying will make them an outcast, they’ll be much less likely to bully. If the bully’s peers react by reporting the behaviour or intervening on behalf of the victim, the bullying will decrease.
Like other bullies, harassers thrive in environments where supervision is minimal and rules are loosely enforced or non-existent. And just as with bullies, cooperation and community values are the most powerful weapons of containment. None of this will stop a harasser from wanting to harass, but it will severely curtail their opportunities to do so, and likely make it a career ending choice.
All of this depends on top-down buy in from the leaders of an organization. They have to walk the walk, set the tone and make sure it is enforced without fear or favour. They need to do much more than tick the box and press play on the 1980’s sexual harassment training video.
All too often, group think and anxiety about imaginary consequences shuts down complaints before they are even made. If we want to stop abusive behavior in in the workplace, then we need to ensure our HR departments and all our other whistleblowers are protected and emboldened. When abuse is occurring we need to protect those who speak out, not shame them into staying with the herd.