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Learning Delivery

How Effective is Mandatory Harassment Training?

When harassment training is presented as a legal obligation and not an important part of company culture, its effects are questionable.

“The landscape around harassment has changed more in the past six to eight months than I’ve seen it happen in 28 years of being in human resources,” said Amy Polefrone, president at HR Strategy Group.

Considering that observation, the Stop Sexual Harassment in New York City Act seems timely. The bundle of seven bills would apply to employers of 15 or more across the city. They would be required to conduct compulsory sexual harassment training twice a year, as well as provide extra training for supervisors and managers.

The act states, “Training shall be designed to create an environment that is free from sexual harassment.” The goal is to stop harassment through learning.

California has had a similar local law on the books since 2005. Unsurprisingly, most employers have a sexual harassment training policy in place to comply with national law. Jessica Fink, professor of law at California Western School of Law, said state harassment laws are an expansion of national requirements. “They tend to cover, in many instances, more than federal law,” she said.

Despite the existence of the laws, local or national, reports of harassment continue to emerge. Will tightening mandatory training with measures like the Stop Sexual Harassment in New York City Act help?

Preventing Harassment or Preventing Litigation?

Fink said she believes many lawmakers continue to propose mandatory training laws with good intentions, aiming to inform both employers and employees about harassment.

Data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace showed that employees who undergo mandatory harassment training are more aware of what constitutes harassment. “Participation in training was associated with an increased probability, particularly for men, of considering unwanted sexual gestures, remarks, touching, and pressure for dates to be a form of sexual harassment,” the EEOC’s report stated.

However, increased awareness doesn’t necessarily mitigate the harassment.

“A lot of the time the goal of these sexual harassment trainings is less about preventing sexual harassment per say and more about preventing sexual harassment litigation issues,” said Tessa Dover, assistant professor of applied social psychology at Portland State University.

Some organizations invest in mandatory training so that when problems arise, they can point to their programs and brush off responsibility, which legal precedence supports. However, when harassment training is presented as a legal obligation and not an important part of company culture, research indicates it doesn’t work.

Ineffective or Worse

Research into the effectiveness of training is slim, but, as Polefrone said, “Research indicates that at best, [training] hasn’t helped, and at worst, some research studies have indicated that it’s making the situation worse.”

Harassment training programs may feel like an afterthought to employees. They rush through the required quizzes, checking boxes without considering the impact of what they are learning.

“You compound that with the fact that there’s some evidence out there that employees are even less likely to change their behavior if they feel cynical about the process,” Fink said.

Psychological studies have found that some employees faced with diversity training may push back to reassert individuality. “A lot of folks tend to understand and perceive these trainings as some sort of acquisition,” Dover said.

Dover also outlined the work of Frank Dobbin, professor of sociology at Harvard University, and Alexandra Kalev, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Tel Aviv University. The two examined the diversity initiatives of hundreds of organizations. They found that the mandatory nature of some training programs actually hurts diversity.

“In particular, it was these mandatory training sessions that led to what they have called ‘backfire effects,’ where it actually leads to worse outcomes for the people that they’re trying to increase hiring for,” Dover said. There is an analogous relationship between this type of training and harassment training.

In addition, some employees may feel threatened by their training programs. “The hypothesized reason for that is this lack of autonomy from making the trainings mandatory,” Dover said. “That can lead to resentment and defensiveness.”

In most cases, this means those individuals ignore the messages presented by training, but some may even go out of their way to defy them, Polefrone said.

Building a Better Work Environment

It’s important to remember that training programs don’t occur within a void; they are influenced by company culture as much as they are by the employees who walk into them.

“When we align the training now with the core values of the company, the conversations are automatically different,” Polefrone said.

Step one of building a harassment-free workplace is evaluating the workplace culture and reinforcing policy with dedication from the top down. Then, taking formal measures in response to reports and actively encouraging employees to report incidents of harassment will lead to long-term improvements.

“Having something like that in place messages to employees that we’re not looking for you to report this so we can go through the motions,” Fink said. “It’s showing employees that we take harassment really seriously.”

Changing the way harassment training is presented is also important. Choosing a variety of engaging speakers who present programs that are tailored to the workplace a few times a year can be one way to improve mandatory training. Some companies are already taking advantage of new technology like virtual reality to this end.

Within legal bounds, voluntary programs are an option. When employees choose to participate, it’s more likely the lesson will stick. “From a research perspective, my assessment would be that the more perceived choice people have in whether or not they want to attend or have to attend, the better,” Dover said.

However, choice comes with a price. “The problem is, of course, the self-selection problem” Fink said. “The people who volunteer to sit in the room are probably the ones who are least likely to engage in that behavior.”

Instead, employers can focus on reframing their programs to present the negative impact harassing behavior has on business, not just the legal implications. In addition, Dover said that offering employees other sorts of choices, such as the type of training to do or the mode in which the training is delivered, will help employees regain agency.

Integrating bystander intervention training or civility training can transform harassment training into a program focused on building a better work environment. “In some ways, we need to begin with the end in mind. What do we want our workplace to be?” Polefrone said.

Once new training programs are in place, Dover emphasized the importance of measuring the results. “I feel like a lot of organizations are afraid to measure,” she said. “But if it truly is your goal to change the culture or reduce harassment, then you need to be taking data.” Consulting with employees to learn what they like or don’t like about their training programs is one way to start collecting that data.

Maintaining the status quo is easy, but making the choice to move beyond the barebones legal requirements of harassment training can greatly improve the outcomes.

Mariel Tishma is an editorial intern at Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

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