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Home / Resources / Is it time to rethink sexual harassment training?

Is it time to rethink sexual harassment training?


Hollywood, Washington, Westminster, Brussels, big business, global charities: they’ve all had their share of sexual harassment scandals. These high-profile examples demonstrate how pervasive sexual harassment is in the workplace. It’s happening in all sectors and it’s on a global scale.

In America, four in 10 women report experiencing sexual harassment at work in any two-year period, while the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that the figure rises to 85% in some instances. In the UK, a recent survey found that half of women and a fifth of men have been sexually harassed at work or place of study. In the EU, workplace sexual harassment is reported to be “up to 55%”.

We know it’s a global issue because of the backlash and response to campaigns like the #MeToo Movement and Everyday Sexism. The #MeToo Movement has had first-hand stories from people in 85 different countries. In France, actresses have joined their Hollywood counterparts in their own version of the ‘Time’s Up’ campaign, wearing white ribbons.

The precise extent of sexual harassment at work is impossible to gauge. For a start, more than a third of countries (68) have no legal protections in place to prevent it, so there’s no real measurement. And the low reporting rate of incidents doesn’t reflect the full scale.  However, the statistics we do have confirms that it’s real and it’s widespread.

Why isn’t sexual harassment training working?

Critics of existing workplace regulations say they’re encouraging training to be simply a box-ticking exercise rather than a way of changing behaviours. In the US, organisations can minimise their liability if they prohibit sexual harassment and have internal grievance procedures. The EEOC says this isn’t likely to prevent it happening in the first place and it’s not going to change attitudes. In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest that training based around instilling knowledge of definitions and how to report incidents is entrenching already-held beliefs and reinforcing gender stereotypes. Because these stereotypes say that men are powerful and women are vulnerable, it could be making the abuse of power worse.

EEOC Chair, Victoria Lipnic, says the “box-ticking exercise”, combined with the “one-size-fits-all” training – often ineffective PowerPoints, information videos and classroom presentations – are the main reasons why workplace sexual harassment isn’t going away. The training is largely about legal compliance and not addressing the root causes.

A tipping point

There’s been a lot of soul-searching in the wake of all the sexual harassment scandals. In Germany, they’re questioning if it will lead to a cultural shift. Christine Lüders, director of the German Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency, says there’s a lack understanding across the board: “We found out in a survey that many employees are poorly informed about their rights. Eight out of 10 do not know that their employer is required to protect them from sexual harassment in the workplace, and many employers do not seem to be aware of this duty either.”

Elsewhere, there is evidence that organisations are looking more seriously at prioritising effective measures to prevent workplace sexual harassment. In New York, the city council has just rolled out legislation requiring private companies with 15 employees or more to have an annual sexual harassment training programme. In Europe, the Swedish Film Institute has proposed mandatory sexual conduct training for all employees at production companies, in order for them to be eligible for film grants.

What training will work?

Lipnic is among those who argue that organisation-wide culture change is what’s needed. This requires embedded values, where everyone is treated as equals. The issue isn’t about knowledge, it’s about behaviours and attitudes.

Researchers suggest a number of evidence-based actions that organisations can introduce across employees and managers. These include engendering a culture of respect and civility; empowering the bystander; having supportive systems that encourage reporting; and promoting more women – sexual harassment is reduced where there are more female managers.

According to researchers, training works best where it is interactive and bespoke for each particular workplace. The training should be overseen by the employees’ supervisor or by an external expert, not an internal HR officer.  Harassment should be a topic in other training areas too, such as customer service. Finally, sexual harassment training must be reinforced frequently to create a new culture.

L&D teams would be wise to review their organisation’s existing provision and ask if it’s fit for purpose or if a culture change is needed.