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Is your company’s anti-harassment training a flop?

  • Author: Lynne Curry
    | Alaska Workplace
  • Updated: December 10, 2017
  • Published December 10, 2017

"How the hell could he have been so stupid?" the manager asked when he called.

"What burns me is this spring he asked me if he could skip the annual anti-harassment training because he'd been through it five years in a row. So explain to me why I have credible complaints from three different women alleging this man on my senior team sexually harassed each of them?"

The manager didn't like it when, as part of my situation assessment, I told him his company's anti-harassment training was partially to blame.

"What you've got," I said, "is check-the-box training. It's better than nothing, but if you want to change behavior, you have to provide your managers and supervisors more effective training."

If you wonder whether your company's training falls short of the mark, measure it against this five-point yardstick.

The attendees work as hard as the trainer

When was the last time you remembered a lecture for more than a day? Research shows that training attendees retain approximately 20 percent of what they hear eight months after a lecture. They retain, however, 90 percent of what they do after they perform a task.

Anti-harassment training in which trainees passively listen to a lecture or watch an online video produces, at best, short-term results. Effective anti-harassment training presents attendees with real-life cases and asks them to apply what they've learned in deciding whether the plaintiff or defendant will likely prevail. Once the attendees say what they think, the trainer lets them know how the real-life jury decided.

Says former employment attorney turned HR consultant Rick Birdsall, "Attendees normally get half the case answers incorrect during the first hour of training. This spurs them to work even harder during the second hour and results in attendees learning the material because they want to get the right answers."

Move past platitudes

Ineffective training offers general platitudes such as "treat others with respect." While it's absolutely true that treating everyone with respect would prevent most harassment, those who don't already understand what respect means don't get it. They need clear-cut guidelines such as "If you ask a coworker out twice and she says 'no' twice, don't ask again," and "Supervisors cannot come on to an employee, because the power difference makes it unfair."

"It's all gray" is a cop-out

Because court and jury decisions rest on the exact facts in a specific situation, some attendees shrug their shoulders during half-hearted harassment training sessions and say "it's all gray, all a matter of opinion."

It's not. You may think there's nothing wrong with giving someone a body hug, but you'd be the only one.

Scare tactics don't work

If attendees leave a training afraid to say "you look nice" to a colleague, the training went too far and not far enough. Effective training shows attendees where the line is, so they can stay on the right side of it. In real life we need to be able to give compliments without fear and also know that we can't refer to specific body areas.

Questions and discussion

One-way training in which the presenter provides a list of "here's what you need to know" and attendees listen meekly fails. Worse, if the trainer or training you use glides by confused or disbelieving looks on attendees' faces, the opportunity to correct false assumptions is missed. Effective harassment training engages participants in active discussions so that they can offer opinions and learn to their surprise where and when they're off-base.

Would you like to safeguard your managers and company against harassment complaints? Improve your training.