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Rethinking Online Sexual Harassment Training After #MeToo

Holly Curtis, President and Founder of The People Perspective, LLC
9 min read

The recent deluge of sexual harassment allegations getting public attention across a wide variety of industries in the U.S. is shining a spotlight on employer responsibility. Many organizations have responded by increasing their offering of sexual harassment trainings, a good first step. But what will ensure the effectiveness of online sexual harassment training after the recent #MeToo movement?

Who is #MeToo, and what does it all mean?

More than just a hashtag, the #MeToo movement represents a tidal wave of women (and men) standing up for themselves by speaking out against harassment that is still pervasive in many of today’s organizational cultures. #MeToo was first used by social activist Tarana Burke, and recently popularized by actress Alyssa Milano who encouraged women to use the hashtag if they had been harassed.

Responses flooded in, with the number of hashtags climbing into the thousands within hours. Each #MeToo represents an incidence of harassment, but it’s difficult to pinpoint actual statistics on sexual harassment. The numbers vary wildly depending on industry, race, socioeconomic status, and age group. Accurately identifying the number of occurrences of workplace harassment relies on victim reporting, which for many, is just not possible.

The #MeToo movement is addressing an issue that’s more than simply an annoyance to the millions of (typically) women who suffer from sexual harassment. For example, victims of sexual harassment may have to consider whether or not to skip meetings where they know a harasser will be present. They may feel compelled to turn down certain clients or projects or business trips that include their harasser, potentially threatening their career progression. They may feel forced to decide whether or not it’s worth reporting a harasser when their livelihood and personal career goals are on the line. And that’s all before considering the very real risks to the victim’s personal health and safety.

Employers have always had the responsibility to protect their employees from harassment and provide effective methods of addressing any potential incidents that occur. Many employers have turned to online sexual harassment training to bridge this gap. However, as is obvious from the victims self-identifying in the #MeToo movement, many existing online sexual harassment training courses have simply not been effective.

How can you make online sexual harassment training effective?

Effective online anti-harassment training means more than sitting employees in front of a screen that displays the legal definition of sexual harassment with the words, “Don’t do it.” Employers must focus on more than providing online training that simply allows each employee to check off the box as “Trained,” and, in doing so, claim that the organization is demonstrating a good faith effort.

With the following seven steps, employers can ensure the design and development of online sexual harassment training that is truly effective:

  • Walk the talk – communicate, and demonstrate, organizational commitment in policy and practice
  • Create the right culture, starting at the top
  • Consider your audience – managerial responsibilities vs. individual employee awareness
  • Choose the right format to ensure training that will stick
  • Provide a safe open door environment for victim and witness reporting
  • Make online harassment training for employees an ongoing exercise
  • Go beyond compliance and consider customization

Let’s explore more about each of these.

Step 1: Walk the talk

Now is the time to review your current sexual harassment policies and practices.

It is critical to offer a written policy that is crystal clear and provides a variety of options for safe and supportive victim and witness reporting. The written policy should also specifically state the employer’s commitment to creating and ensuring a comfortable and professional work environment.

Be brutally honest regarding whether existing written policies and enforcement actions are really working for your employees, and the organization, as a whole.

It may also be a good time to seek individual employee input. Consider involving a consultant as an independent third party to gather feedback from the employee group and provide a summary report on current policies and practices – and changes that are needed.

Step 2: Create the right culture, and it absolutely has to start at the top

Effective online sexual harassment training is not just about changing behavior –it’s about changing minds.

Mindset starts at the top with company executives that believe in the value of all employees, regardless of gender or job. This includes not only telling employees they are valuable but also showing them.

It’s important that company executives listen to complaints and take them seriously, regardless of where they come from. Doing this begins with a clear policy for reporting sexual harassment, as described in Step 1 - even (and especially) when it involves the highest levels of the company.

Train the executive team first. Remind them how negatively impactful sexual harassment is to the organization. Remind them of their responsibility, not only by personally demonstrating appropriate behavior as the organization’s leaders, but also by vocally supporting the company’s policies, practices, and intent in ensuring a work environment free from harassment.

Make sure that the entire senior management team has successfully completed your online sexual harassment training program and set the expectation that the leaders of the organization will actively support it.

Professor Vicki Magley is a psychologist who studies sexual harassment trainings and their effectiveness. Her findings are clear:

[Effective training is] about the climate. When employees perceived that their company was ethical, their knowledge improved and their attitudes changed as a result of the harassment prevention training… they take it seriously because they think that the organization is taking it seriously.”

Sexual harassment training for leaders in a company sends a signal that your company takes harassment allegations seriously, so seriously that it’s worth their time to refresh their own understanding of it.

Step 3: Consider your audience

Do management training first. Any employee who is responsible for managing or supervising the work of any other employee has a specific personal legal liability to ensure a work environment free from sexual harassment. It is imperative that the company provides specific and separate training for managers so that they know how to behave in order to protect, not only the company, but themselves.

Regarding individual employee training: it may seem to make sense, from an efficiency standpoint, to roll it out to the entire organization all at once. However, when this happens, your message may be lost on a large group of people. The training may be even more effective if the organization provides the training to smaller employee groups at a given point in time.

This can allow HR to provide more personal attention and support. The goal is to make sure the message is received, which includes offering a method for employees to ask questions (in person or online) and provide personal feedback.

Step 4: Choose the right format

An hour-long lecture on sexual harassment isn’t what your employees need. It’s clear that these old-school traditional sexual harassment trainings don’t work.

Back away from the time machine! Sexual harassment in the 21st century is not the same as it was in the 20th.

While the intentions behind harassment may be the same, the approach should look updated and fit today’s world. If you are still using examples from Mad Men in your anti-harassment training, it’s time to update your training toolbox.

Choosing the right training format to fit the organization is critical. Training is only valuable if it sticks over the long term. What has been proven most effective is small bits of information delivered in a personal way.

Microlearning is a way of teaching and delivering content to learners in small, very specific bursts. The learners are in control of what and when they’re learning. Microlearning in online sexual harassment training courses can include testimonials of victims of harassment. Use microlearning and online sexual harassment training modules to spell out exactly what harassment is and when a behavior crosses the line.

Also, take advantage of the sexual harassment training to address the broader issue of general employee harassment concerns that are not necessarily sexual in nature. Definitions of harassment also include issues associated with race, age, disability, or national origin. Microlearning can be particularly impactful when expanding into these areas. Put an organizational stake in the ground against “bullying” of any kind in the work environment.

Go beyond legal or corporate compliance and give individual employees the tools they need to better identify harassment of any kind and what it looks like in the workplace.

Step 5: Provide a safe open door environment for victim and witness reporting

If the #MeToo movement has brought up the prevalence of sexual harassment in general it has also specifically pointed out a curious feature of many sexual harassment claims and the reason why so many harassed people remain silent: the perception that the victim will not be believed or will be blamed.

Hearing from, and listening very carefully to, victims is a crucial part of this equation that leads to fewer incidences of harassment. How? Victims who know they will be believed are more likely to come forward. As a result, action taken against proven harassers will impact the entire organization in that it will be apparent how seriously the company takes claimants. The possibility of negative consequences resulting from sexually harassing behavior will likely lead individual employees to evaluate their own actions more carefully going forward.

Prove to all employees that the company has a variety of safe open doors with the goal of really listening to concerned individuals. Set up a clear system for reporting sexual harassment that includes who to report to, specific actions that will be taken during the complaint process, and the time frame for investigating a complaint. Ensure that individuals voicing concerns need not fear retribution of any kind.

Step 6: Make online harassment training for employees an ongoing exercise

From the employee onboarding to their retirement from the company, anti-harassment training should be an ongoing, proactive, and regular part of employee training.

Include it as part of the new hire orientation process. Provide managerial training the minute an individual employee is promoted into a supervisory position. And, it would be wise to offer all employees a refresher course annually.

Step 7: Go beyond compliance and consider customization

ure, employers often post a couple videos and make employees take a quiz to check on their comprehension, but that doesn’t truly change the work environment.

Go beyond mere compliance and design an online sexual harassment training that makes a difference within the organization. Companies whose employees feel valued and protected are more successful. Anti-harassment trainings should reinforce an employee’s worth and value to the organization, not just be one more box to check off.

Any customization that can be added to online training will be an opportunity to hit home with employees and help demonstrate the company’s commitment to the quality of the training content.

Learning from the #MeToo movement

The #MeToo movement is speaking loud and clear. All employers have the immediate opportunity to demonstrate to their employees that they hear it too!

Today’s employers simply can’t afford to wait any longer to make effective online sexual harassment training a top priority.

EdgePoint Learning can help you take a closer look at your company’s existing online sexual harassment programs, and make suggestions about making it more effective. Get in touch today.

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Holly Curtis

President and Founder of The People Perspective, LLC

Holly Curtis

Holly Curtis is a recognized executive business leader who provides senior-level human resource and organizational development consulting services in support of each organization’s unique business circumstances. She has held HR leadership roles with a wide variety of organizations, from entrepreneurial start-ups to global industry giants.


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