Thursday, June 9, 2016

Sexual Harassment Training Revisited

In 1980, the EEOC first recognized sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII. In 1986, the United States Supreme Court agreed in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson. Courts and anti-discrimination enforcement agencies began to urge employers to adopt policies against sexual harassment and provide training aimed at preventing its occurrence in the workplace. In the intervening years, sexual harassment training has become commonplace, and has become an important part of the defense of harassment lawsuits. In some states, training is mandatory or “encouraged” by state law. California’s law is very specific, requiring all employers with more than 50 employees to provide training to supervisory and managerial employees.
The quality and effectiveness of training varies, of course, and despite the fact that training is relatively common, some sources claim that 1 in 3 women aged 18 to 34 still report being sexually harassed at work. The EEOC suggests that the number is 1 in 4, regardless of age. The cost of sexual harassment remains high for employers, whether incurred through legal fees and judgments or through lost productivity and diminished morale.
A recent article in The Guardian questions the value of sexual harassment training, citing studies that suggest training may increase instances of harassment or provoke “male backlash.”  We aren’t qualified to judge the science underlying the cited studies.  Having trained on the subject since 1980, however, we remain firmly convinced that training can be valuable. Here are our suggestions for making it effective.
  • Don’t do it on the cheap. Good training doesn’t have to break the bank, but it’s worth paying for quality. 
  • Don’t rush it. We have yet to see a 30 minute, one-size-fits-all video or desktop training module that adequately educates employees.  At a minimum, training needs to include examples and a mechanism for questions.
  • Make sure the trainer understands the law. Sexual harassment basics are complicated enough.  Differing state laws and court interpretations add complexity.  Employers need to insist that those they hire as trainers demonstrate deep, current knowledge of all applicable laws, as well as an understanding of the impact of sexual harassment in the workplace.
  • Avoid shame and blame. Although sexual harassment has real and damaging consequences that must be taken seriously, a lot of harassment happens as a result of ignorance, carelessness, or insensitivity, rather than bad intentions.  Most people – even those whose words or actions constitute legally actionable sexual harassment – don’t intend harm.  An important purpose of training is to make employees understand that harm can occur even when it’s not intended.  That’s best done with empathy and a matter-of-fact approach, rather than hostility.
  • Use examples, and invite discussion.  Training should include lots of examples. At its best, training will include examples of conduct and statements that don’t constitute sexual harassment, as well as words, actions, and materials that do.  It should also provide an opportunity for those being trained to discuss and react to examples.
  • Make it clear that management thinks the training is important. Just as upper management’s attitudes and behavior send a message about acceptable and unacceptable workplace conduct, the way that management describes and implements sexual harassment training will send a message about its importance. 
Posted by Judy Langevin