It’s coming up on that time again; mandatory harassment prevention training has rolled around. Whether employees are joining a new company, need meet periodic retraining requirements, or are taking harassment training for the first time because of New York State’s new legal requirements – very few greet the invitation in their inbox with joy. More common reactions range from annoyance (“I don’t have time for this”) to outright dread.
Yes, you must provide and attend sexual harassment prevention training. But no, it does not have to be a horrible experience for you or your employees. It’s true that very few people attend sexual harassment training for any reason other than that they are required to. And, like traffic school or any other compliance-oriented training, certain material must be covered. But after 30 years of delivering such trainings, I’ve come to the conclusion that the experience of taking sexual harassment prevention training isn’t horrible, only the experience of taking BAD sexual harassment prevention training is. Let’s look at the three pains participants commonly experience in bad sexual harassment prevention trainings, and “painkilling” prescriptions to address them.
Pain 1: Sexual Harassment Prevention Training Can Feel Scary
Some participants attend sexual harassment prevention workshops with great reluctance. The topics discussed in harassment prevention trainings can be very emotional. These are topics that can engender fears, both reasonable and unreasonable. This is particularly true after recent events have pushed harassment issues almost continually into the headlines.
For some, the idea of attending a harassment prevention workshop surfaces painful experiences they or people they care about have had in their lives. Others may be concerned that they will be “caught” and incur disapproval for behavior, even though their intent was honorable. Still others may feel that the law has gone too far and protects the over-sensitive. People do and should bring their own histories and experiences to these trainings.
Prescription 1: Live Training with Space for Discussion
This concern is why I don’t recommend online-only sexual harassment training for organizations of any substantial size. The one-way “tell and test” of online learning provides the basic information needed to comply with several state laws; however, New York State’s new mandate requires a live trainer be available even if the training is online! Given that, why not do the actual training live? Furthermore, training compliance is not the only goal. Firms don’t just want to comply with the laws mandating training, they want to comply with the underlying laws against harassment by reducing the probability that bad behavior will occur. Beyond even that, forward-thinking companies want to create a work environment where each employee can do his/her best work.
To accomplish all of these goals, a live training with space for discussion is vital. One of the most helpful parts of an effective harassment prevention workshop is allowing time for participants to express their concerns and ask questions in a relatively safe environment. This requires not only time and space for discussion, but also a skilled facilitator who can make it “OK” to ask questions, and who can provide answers without shame or blame.
Of course, for some people the idea of discussing such sensitive topics with co-workers is scary in itself. One solution I frequently use in workshops is to deploy “clickers,” devices that allow participants to vote on multiple-choice questions without fear of being seen to be “wrong” or “insensitive.” These have proved to be a powerful tool to keep participants engaged and curious about how others around them are thinking about these issues. Participants consistently report that the interactive nature of the technology used makes it easier to ask questions and have a constructive dialogue about a difficult topic.
Pain 2: Generic Sexual Harassment Prevention Training
I’ve been told countless times by clients, “We’re a law firm/energy company/tech company, so our environment and needs are different. Plus, we have our own culture, and some specific issues that are unique to us.”
My response is always, “Great!” One-size-fits-all training provides minimum compliance with laws such as New York State’s new mandate around sexual harassment prevention training. But it’s unlikely to be the most engaging for your employees or the most effective for your company.
Prescription 2: Training Customized for Your Culture and Environment
Don’t get me wrong, implementing harassment prevention training in your company is always a good thing – and in New York and many other states it is, in fact, required. However, training is more engaging and more effective if it is customized for your needs. When I start work with a new client, it is important for us to spend some time together (in person or by phone) to ensure that the workshop meets the needs for the organization. Often, I have a head start because that client is in an industry or function, such as e-commerce/tech or law firms, that I’ve worked with many times before. But even within these parameters, there are needs specific to your organization, and sometimes even down to a particular department or team. When choosing a training firm or trainer, make sure there is room for this kind of interaction.
For example, recent clients have specifically asked me for extra content on the following topics:
- Micro-aggressions – practical examples of behaviors in which no one incident constitutes harassment, but where a sequence of them can create a hostile work culture.
- Bystander training – when and how to speak up when you are not the target, a communication model for doing so, and models of appropriate responses.
- Talent impact – understanding the impact of even unintentionally inappropriate conduct on company culture, reputation and retention of top talent.
Your company-specific needs may vary, and that’s exactly the point. Even if your sexual harassment training consists of 90% mandated core content, the 10% that is customized for you makes a huge difference.
Pain 3: Sexual Harassment Prevention Training is Boring (Pronounced “Booooriiing!”)
Even when there is no fear, there may still be loathing. Employees must take mandated trainings no matter how tediously the material is presented. And the awful truth is that the presentation is often tedious indeed. However, it doesn’t have to be.
Prescription 3: Make it Fun (ish)
Sexual harassment is a serious problem that deserves serious attention. So are driving safety, workplace accident prevention, and fire safety. Yet great trainers have managed to make training on all of these serious topics engaging and even (gasp!) sometimes fun. Making required training as engaging as it can be is not disrespectful; it is effective. One respects serious issues by addressing them in the most effective possible way.
For example, my firm’s workshops often include skits or even custom-shot videos that dramatize key points especially relevant to the client. When possible, we actually use higher-ups from the company as the “talent” for these dramatizations. Employees love to see their bosses in these less than dignified situations. The skits and videos draw employees in in a way that lectures or even generic videos would not.
In a recent workshop, we went so far as dramatizing key issues using labelled hats that let a few people play many characters. The sheer ridiculousness of watching people switch hats and characters a dozen times in a few minutes helps defuse the anxiety that employees naturally feel in this kind of training. And there’s plenty of research to show that anxiety is the enemy of learning.
Making trainings more engaging does NOT mean making light of the problems of sexual harassment, bullying, lack of diversity or any other serious workplace issue. It means using every effective method at your disposal to prevent these problems – including trainings your employees might actually enjoy.
Better Training Equals Better Culture
To paraphrase Sophie Tucker, “I’ve seen good harassment prevention and I’ve seen bad, and good is better.” When sexual harassment prevention training is relevant and engaging, participants leave more confident that they have skills to deal with potentially difficult situations and enough knowledge to avoid behaving inappropriately. These skills, as well as actually having their specific concerns listened to and addressed, increase training impact, reduce the likelihood of harassment issues and increase the probability that complaints can be resolved in-house.