Should We Still Be Doing Harassment Training?

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Fran S.

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Several years ago, I was visiting some students in a college residence hall.  One sat at her desk drinking a beer. Surprised,  I asked if beer was allowed in the residence hall, and she stated it indeed was, for students over 21.  She noted that she, however, was only 19 and had been cited the previous week for underage drinking.  She reported that she was at her desk taking the online training course on alcohol use that assigned by the college to first offenders.  I had my doubts about the effectiveness of that training.

Training is a great idea, and as someone who has run a consulting and training firm for a long time, I’m obviously a believer…but not all training is equal.  Such was the conclusion of the recently released  Report of the Co-Chairs of the EEOC Select Committee on Harassment.

After months of testimony, the Co-Chairs concluded that, based upon expert research and reports from the field, anti-harassment training was often compliance-oriented and meant to protect the company.  That training, often online, focuses on behavior to be avoided and the consequences of failing to do so. What it does not do is help people navigate the nuance of dealing with diverse people in the complex world of the workplace. It does not talk about why someone might not speak up, or how to demonstrate respect across cultures, or how to address an uncomfortable situation that does not yet rise to the level of actionable behavior.  In their report,  The Co-Chairs advocated for training that went far beyond traditional compliance training and moved into the area of “civility training.”  They also pointed out that training, even very good training cannot stand by itself but must be part of a larger effort at accountability and leadership. Further, they nodded to the reality that adults learn better in conversation than in isolation.

While the report contains many important recommendations and is, IMHO, a worthwhile read for anyone working with the issue of harassment in the workplace or leadership and culture, this one is important.  “Checking the box” is not enough and never has been.  When your employees are told to sit in a training session that does not align with what they see and hear every day in terms of leadership, behavior, accountability, and respect, it only degrades their engagement and the employer’s credibility.  Rather, those of us who do this training need to push our clients to “start where they are,” looking holistically at culture, climate, and aspirations, and develop education that starts where they are.  This means that in some organizations, simple discussions about problem-solving and conflict management need to happen before civility training.  This means that supervisors need training apart from and generally prior to employees, so when employees raise concerns, they know what to do.  Similarly, the training needs to respect the intelligence of the training audience, using realistic examples, promoting new skills and recognizing the barriers to dealing with interpersonal problems at work.

As I reported earlier, I testified before the Task Force, and again before the EEOC on the date the report was released.  With regard to training, I said the following,

It is my opinion that education about harassment and how to prevent and address it is necessary, but that the effectiveness of such efforts hinge on whether such training can penetrate beyond head learning and motivate people to behave in particular ways.  Thirty years into a career of training, I now generally decline to do freestanding “anti-harassment” training because it necessarily makes a long term difference.   Rather, in conformance with the recommendations made by the Co-Chairs, my firm’s training frames harassment as one of a variety of “derailers,” along with abusive behavior and microaggressions, which undermine a respectful culture and a positive workplace.  The lion’s share of the training (which I refer to as “Respectful Workplace and the Co-Chairs refers to as” Civility Training”) focuses on very concretely defining respectful behavior, understanding the dynamics of interpersonal  problems in the workplace, managing conflict, providing feedback, bystander and ally responsibilities, and creating a culture of candor. I was pleased the Co-Chairs embraced the testimony of experts urging employers to consider training that is live, interactive, and customized.

The day before the Co-Chairs released their report, they gave a presentation at national SHRM.  The tweeted headline was “Harassment Training Doesn’t Work.”  There was understandable consternation all around.  I believe the message of the Co-Chairs is loud and clear.  Harassment Training ALONE Doesn’t Work.  I hope employers listen.  Good employee engagement and well designed, interactive, respectful and rigorous training can bring transformation to a workplace AND prevent harassment.


Fran S.

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