Recent sexual assault scandals have rocked the U.S. and the world. High-profile media and entertainment celebrities have been forced to step down from their lofty perches in light of widespread sexual harassment allegations. The behavior of candidates for the highest offices in the land has been scrutinized, placing their candidacy at serious risk. For decades, some of the high-profile harassers in media and entertainment were known to insiders but many people protected the harassers’ dirty little secrets, in part because they feared retaliation or losing their jobs and imperiling their careers. At long last, sexual misconduct that has been hidden is coming to light and empowering increasing numbers of women to come forward and share their experiences.
These high-profile sexual harassment and assault cases helped launch the #MeToo movement and are prompting companies to re-evaluate their sexual harassment initiatives. When the initiatives are ineffective and sexual misconduct persists, companies are vulnerable to liability, libel, and possible litigation, not to mention damage to their brand’s reputation. And, in countless cases, ignoring the problem has devastated women’s personal and professional lives.
Creating Cultures of Equality, Civility, and Accountability
How can companies show they are taking these issues seriously and doing all they can to prevent sexual misconduct in the workplace? As we move into 2019, what can organizations do to ensure that their workplaces are harassment-free environments or, even better, offer empowering cultures of equality, civility, and accountability?
It is widely known that organizational culture change begins at the top. Any culture change initiative that is going to succeed must have executive support. And, ideally, some of those executives and managers should be women. Studies have shown that companies with more women managers have less sexual harassment. Why? Harassment thrives when primarily men are in power; Many men feel they must or even encourage other men’s misconduct. Tackling gender inequality, like compensating and promoting men and women equally, helps to prevent sexual misconduct.
Sexual harassment training has been a training staple in corporate America since the 1990s, much of it focused on the rules and regulations and what not to do—with the primary goal of limiting corporate liability and preventing lawsuits. According to many experts, much of the existing sexual harassment prevention training doesn’t go far enough. To prevent harassment, companies must create a culture of respect in which women are treated as equals. If organizations want to reduce the likelihood of sexual harassment, they must tackle it not simply as a knowledge gap but also as a behavior problem. More than requiring employees to complete mandatory training and check some boxes for liability purposes, it is a positive workplace culture, combined with policies that support the culture, that are the ultimate defense against workplace sexual harassment.
Planning Your Training Approach
Research has shown that the most effective training is interactive and tailored for the given industry and business type. For example, a bar’s training would differ from that of a tech company. Thus, a generic off-the-shelf package is not likely the best choice unless it is customized for your organization. Instructor-led training should ideally be conducted by the employees’ manager to increase accountability and buy-in. Sexual harassment training programs should include pre-training, training, and post-training elements. Surveying employees about the workplace culture prior to the training can help determine the extent of the sexual misconduct and thus the type of training required. For the training modality, the best approach is to create blended learning that incorporates presentations, videos, eLearning, and role-playing, with knowledge checks along the way. Training follow-up should include interactive assessments in which learners apply what they’ve learned to realistic scenarios, and taking annual refresher training courses.
Offering Bystander Intervention Training
A 2017 study found that training programs that focus solely on harassers or victims tend to be less effective because most workers believe those labels don’t apply to them and are likely to tune out of the message. Framing training in a way that includes all employees is critical. Employees are more receptive to bystander intervention training, which doesn’t limit its focus to the victims and harassers. Such training increases accountability because it encourages employees to speak up and file complaints when they witness sexual harassment involving another employee. If such a workplace culture had existed in the cases of accused media moguls and Hollywood executives, the behavior would have been called out decades ago and scores of women wouldn’t have been subjected to the toxic, damaging behavior.
Saying Goodbye to “Boys Will Be Boys”
With 2019 fast approaching and more sexual harassment and assault victims coming forward, it’s time to rethink sexual harassment prevention training. The old approach that focused on the regulations, prohibited behavior, victims, and perpetrators has served its purpose, but organizations must go further and foster workplace cultures characterized by equality and respect. Customized interactive training, emphasizing culture and behavior change, must replace the limited liability and what-not-to-do focus. Bystander training that encourages and supports employees to report sexual misconduct has shown how to create a culture of accountability and helps to protect employees from predatory behavior. If culture change and training initiatives are effective, “boys will be boys” culture will soon be relegated to the annals of history, replaced by one that is inclusive, vibrant, and respectful.
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By Neil Cullen (Director, Compliance Learning, Interactive Services)
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