Harassment Training: How to Design for 4 Key Employee Types

on September 3, 2019

Alex, Bill, Cat, and Darren don’t respond to harassment training, each for a unique reason. Here’s how to design an initiative that engages them all.

On the January 9th, 2018 episode of his radio show, Oregon State Representative Bill Post told listeners about a “ridiculous,” non-legislative day he and his fellow Assembly members had recently endured at the Salem Convention Center. Here’s how Post set the stage before recounting what happened:

“Imagine being taken outside, and it’s 30 below zero, and your dentist decides to put a crown in… and he’s not going to use any pain medication.”

Based on that analogy, can you guess what the State Representative was referring to?

However one feels about the tenor of Post’s assessment, his words should reverberate in the mind of every compliance and HR professional. Few people look forward to learning about harassment. In fact, many dread or resent it:

Some employees don’t understand how anti-harassment training applies to them. Let’s come up with a persona to represent this kind of employee—we’ll call them Alex.

Others, like Post, decry harassment, but question why anyone would need exhaustive, hours-long, on-site education about it. (Note that Post was one of the first Republican lawmakers in the state to call for State Senator Jeff Kruse’s resignation in response to sexual harassment allegations against Kruse.) Let’s call this kind of employee Bill.

Still others must contend with the stress of reliving their own unpleasant and sometimes traumatic experiences of harassment. Bear in mind that nearly 50% of working women in the U.S. say they have been harassed at work.
Let’s call this sort of employee Cat.

And finally, there are those who have behaved inappropriately toward co-workers, or whose behavior has circled the edge of improper conduct, and who seek—consciously, subconsciously, or otherwise—to minimize and downplay the issue. These are the people who may characterize harassment as “harmless flirting,” or who complain when a colleague “can’t take a joke.”
We’ll call this employee Darren.

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Harassment Prevention Initiative Checklist

Harassment lawsuits are on the rise, making many companies sit up and take notice. And for good reason. While harassment of all kinds comes at a steep cost for those who suffer it, the entire company feels the effects as well.

If you're looking to roll out an anti-harassment initiative, or you’re wondering how your program stacks up against best practices, this checklist is for you.

Why am I giving names to these employees?

Because it’s crucial that we don’t lump them together. For the most part, these individuals are not pro-harassment, and agree that some sort of  harassment training should be in place. With the exception of Darren, all want the same thing: an anti-harassment initiative that’s relevant, smart, and compassionate, and that doesn’t waste their time or get in the way of their jobs. What matters to them is the particular execution of said initiative.

The question, then, is about tailoring and perfecting the execution: How do we design harassment training that that takes every employee’s needs into consideration?

Well, good news and bad news.

The bad news is that the research isn’t quite there yet. No one, not even the Equal Employment Opportunity, can point to a specific training program and say, “this works.” The EEOC’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace June 2016 Reportstates:

“There are deficiencies in almost all the empirical studies done to date on the effectiveness of training standing alone. Hence, empirical data does not permit us to make declarative statements about whether training, standing alone, is or is not an effective tool in preventing harassment.”

Training—any kind of training—may not be effective on its own. Instead, the EEOC writes that an anti-harassment training program must center on “leadership and accountability”, “must be part of a holistic effort undertaken by the employer to prevent harassment” and “must have specific goals and must contain certain components to achieve those goals.”

The good news? We don’t know nothing. We know what leaders in the field recommend. We know what the EEOC advises. And here at KPA, we know what features of a training program drive engagement, increase information retention, and ensure compliance.

As the EEOC writes, “Compliance training that teaches employees what conduct is not acceptable in the workplace should not be a canned, ‘one-size-fits-all’ training.” With that in mind, let’s consider how an organization could design an anti-harassment training program for each of the personas:

How to Design Training for Alex,
Who Doesn’t Understand the Purpose of an Anti-Harassment Initiative

Alex doesn’t know why she has to learn about harassment in the workplace. She’s never seen it occur, nor has she heard any stories from her co-workers about anything like inappropriate touching, verbal abuse, bullying, or racism—certainly nothing that compares to the obvious name-calling, groping, or crude jokes shown in the 25-year-old harassment video her manager made her watch.

Alex needs training that emphasizes the legal definition of harassment, and provides not just obvious scenarios but industry-specific, real-world examples. According to the EEOC:

“Effective compliance trainings are those that are tailored to the specific realities of different workplaces. Using examples and scenarios that realistically involve situations from the specific worksite, organization, and/or industry makes the compliance training work much better than if the examples are foreign to the workforce. In addition, depending on the makeup of the workforce, employers may wish to consider conducting training in multiple languages, or providing for different learning styles and levels of education.”

Remember that harassment is a form of discrimination under three federal laws: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Alex should know that it’s her responsibility to report any behavior—regardless of whether it immediately seems like harassment or not—if that behavior contributes to an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. Additionally, she should be aware of how to report this information, understand what steps the company will take to handle reports, and know that she will not face retaliation for filing a report.

How to Design Training for Bill,
Who Feels Like Anti-Harassment Training Is a Waste of Time

Bill is appalled and disgusted by workplace harassment. He does not understand or tolerate inappropriate behavior, and won’t hesitate to confront anyone who doesn’t treat his co-workers with respect. But Bill also can’t stand people who waste his time and lecture him on what he already knows. He questions the intelligence of an HR department that pulls him away from his work to undergo the same training he sat through last year.

And yet despite Bill’s presence in the workplace, harassment still occurs. Perhaps has a blindspot to certain forms of harassment, or he doesn’t trust his employer to properly classify and address harassment, or most toxic behavior takes place where he isn’t present.

It may sound counterintuitive, but in the eyes of the EEOC, Bill actually needs to participate on a deeper level, in more frequent training:

“If anti-harassment trainings are held once a year (or once every other year), employees will not believe that preventing harassment is a high priority for the employer. Conversely, if anti-harassment trainings are regularly scheduled events in which key information is reinforced, that will send the message that the goal of the training is important. While this is one area where, in general, repetition is a good thing, we caution against simply repeating the same training over and over, which risks becoming a rote exercise. Rather, we urge employers to consider training that is varied and dynamic in style, form, and content.”

Rather than a 4-, 6-, or 8-hour offsite, bite-sized anti-harassment training built into a larger training framework may reduce Bill’s resistance to the program. He needs to understand that reporting harassment is part of his employment agreement; it’s how he keeps his job.

At the same time, Bill’s employer should solicit his feedback and empower him to participate in shaping the organization’s anti-harassment initiative. Bill may have great ideas for improving and streamlining training. As someone who already “gets” it, he’s in a unique position to share his experience and perspective with new employees. He could be a valuable asset when screening speakers and educational materials. Show him he’s necessary for the initiative to work, and he’ll be invested in making it work.

The same applies to all members of middle management. Organizations should give managers and supervisors the tools to respond to claims of harassment, so that a) employees can trust their bosses, and b) managers and supervisors take their responsibilities seriously. As the EEOC writes, “Managers and supervisors are the heart of an employer’s prevention system.”

Likewise, explicit buy-in from the organization’s leadership can go a long way toward fostering awareness throughout the chain:

“[E]mployees must believe that the leadership is serious about preventing harassment in the workplace. Training alone is not sufficient to establish the credibility of the leadership in this regard—but compliance training provides a moment at which the focus is on achieving this goal and thus, leadership should take advantage of that moment. The strongest expression of support is for a senior leader to open the training session and attend the entire training session. At a minimum, a video of a senior leader might be shown at the beginning of the training and a memo from leadership to all employees sent prior to the training can underscore the importance and purpose of the training. Similarly, if all employees at every level of the organization are trained, that both increases the effectiveness of the training and communicates the employer’s commitment of time and resources to the training effort.”

How to Design Training for Cat,
Who Has Experienced Harassment

Cat’s background significantly differs from Alex’s and Bill’s. She has experienced harassment in the form of unwanted sexual advances. She’s had names and racial slurs thrown her way. She knows that people are capable of staggering cruelty, invective, and abuses of power.

But she isn’t convinced anti-harassment initiatives lead to meaningful change. To Cat, the training feels cursory, the depictions of perpetrators cartoonish, the workplace policy language simplistic and hollow. After training, she returns to her workstation demoralized, if not concerned that her co-workers will take harassment even less seriously after completing the program.

To understand Cat’s frustration and fear, one need only pay attention to the news: stories of harassment are everywhere, and our society is just beginning to reckon with the myriad immediate and lingering psychological, physical, and emotional effects for those who experience it.

Or forget the mainstream news—pick up a local paper, such as The Modesto Bee, in which a contributor wrote not long ago: “Recently, I sat through a mandatory 2-hour online course about preventing sexual harassment in the office. Through the cheesy examples and terrible acting, I began to wonder: Do these trainings actually work?”

What Cat needs from her employer is harassment training that emphasizes action, as well as assurance that an anti-harassment initiative is just one component of a broader commitment to maintaining a culture where everyone feels safe, respected, and included. Cat should know what to do when she witnesses harassment: how she can de-escalate or disrupt the conflict, protect targeted co-workers, and help people address their own inappropriate behavioral tendencies.

In addition to training, Cat’s employer (and every organization) should take a close look at the composition of their management team and board of directors: Does the organization’s leadership reflect its employees, consumers, and community in terms of race, language, gender identity, sexuality, and ethnic background? Are promotions available to everyone regardless of identity, age, or physical ability? Does everyone feel included in the culture of the workplace?

How to Design Training for Darren,
Who Thinks Anti-Harassment Initiatives Go Too Far

And then there’s Darren. While we can’t psychoanalyze Darren—there could be many reasons for his behavior—we can classify him through his actions and others’ perceptions as someone who believes he can get away with harassment. Perhaps he’s been warned or disciplined for making insensitive comments, sending co-workers inappropriate messages, or physically intimidating or touching others without their consent.

Or, because he’s a rainmaking employee, the organization ignores allegations about Darren. His accusers get demoted or quit. Maybe he’s placed on leave for a month, or transferred laterally, but his role as a harasser never comes to light outside of closed doors.

Some Darrens may be unaware of how their behavior affects others, or assume certain forms of harassment are “normal” (i.e. ratified by the cultural norms of the organization) and therefore acceptable. For these individuals—and for that matter, every employee—the EEOC recommends workplace civility training:

“Workplace civility trainings focus on establishing expectations of civility and respect in the workplace, and on providing management and employees the tools they need to meet such expectations. The training usually includes an exploration of workplace norms, including a discussion of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behaviors in the workplace. The training also includes a heavily skills-based component, including interpersonal skills training, conflict resolution training, and training on effective supervisory techniques.

The beauty of workplace civility training is that it is focused on the positive – what employees and managers should do, rather than on what they should not do. In addition, by appealing to all individuals in the workplace, regardless of social identity or perceived proclivity to harass, civility training might avoid some of the resistance met by interventions exclusively targeting harassment.”

Unfortunately, people who knowingly harass others can’t always be trained out of their behavior. The onus to stop harassment falls not only on perpetrators and victims, but those nearby. Beyond zero-tolerance policies, employers should consider bystander training:

“Bystander intervention training has long been used as a violence prevention strategy, and it has become increasingly utilized by colleges and high schools to prevent sexual assault. The training has been shown to change social norms and empower students to intervene with peers to prevent assaults from occurring.”

Bystander training teaches employees to recognize problematic behaviors, equips them with resources, and impels them to take action. According to the EEOC, this approach can “create a sense of empowerment” that binds together a team and gives employees the courage to intervene where they would feel helpless otherwise.

To exemplify this training, the Commission references, the Green Dot Bystander Intervention program, which was initially created to address sexual assault and domestic violence on college campuses, and which focuses on “three Ds”:

  1. confront the potential perpetrator of sexual assault in a direct manner, and ask the person to cease the behavior;
  2. distract the potential perpetrator of sexual assault, and remove the potential victim;
    or
  3. delegate the problem to someone who has the authority to intervene.

Design Your Anti-Harassment Program with KPA

Training is one piece of a comprehensive anti-workplace harassment initiative. Best practices demonstrate there are at least 4 elements in a holistic program:

  • Leadership & Accountability: The first step in creating a holistic harassment prevention program is for the leadership of an organization to establish a culture of respect in which harassment is not tolerated.
  • Clear Policies: An organization needs a stated policy against harassment that explains the behaviors that will not be accepted in the workplace and the procedures to follow in reporting and responding to harassment.
  • Compliance Training: A holistic effort provides training to employees regarding an employer’s policy, reporting systems, and investigations. Managers also need to learn how to respond appropriately and effectively to harassment before it becomes a legal issue.
  • Reporting & Investigation: Provide reporting systems for allegations of harassment for both employees who have experienced harassment as well as those who have observed occurrences of harassment. Partner these with a thorough investigation and disciplinary process.

We will take a look at the fourth bullet point, reporting and investigation, in an upcoming article in this series. But don’t wait until then to get started. Learn how to build an effective harassment prevention initiative and find more harassment prevention resources here.

Download this!

Harassment Prevention Initiative Checklist

Harassment lawsuits are on the rise, making many companies sit up and take notice. And for good reason. While harassment of all kinds comes at a steep cost for those who suffer it, the entire company feels the effects as well.

If you're looking to roll out an anti-harassment initiative, or you’re wondering how your program stacks up against best practices, this checklist is for you.

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Toby Graham

Toby manages the marketing communications team here at KPA. She's on a quest to help people tell clear, fun stories that their audience can relate to. She's a HUGE sugar junkie...and usually starts wandering the halls looking for cookies around 3pm daily.

Toby GrahamHarassment Training: How to Design for 4 Key Employee Types

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