The problem with workplace sexual harassment training

A recent report suggests that sexual harassment policies have done little to reduce workplace sexual harassment incidences.

By 1997 75% of U.S. companies had workplace training programs to ensure their employees understood what kinds of behavior were prohibited. 95% had implemented systems for people to report claims. By having these two programs in place, companies could protect themselves against workplace harassment claims.

Thirteen years later, the programs seem to have failed. 40% of women and 16% of women surveyed said someone has sexually harassed them at work. The number of female managers has dropped by 5% since these programs began. Many women quit management positions due to harassment. People hoped the training would reduce harassment and increase the number of females in management.

The study suggests that the problem is how the training is presented and carried out. New York state introduced compulsory harassment training for employers in 2018, but it only lasts 45 minutes. Forcing men to attend a course that tells them they must stop sexually harassing women meets resistance. They are on the defensive before the course has started.  

Bystander-intervention training has proved more effective. It teaches people to step in and say something when they see harassment going on — peer pressure, rather than forbidding something.

Training male managers on how to deal with workplace sexual harassment also worked well. As with bystander-intervention training, it removes the accusatory factor. It focuses on how you can change someone else’s behavior, rather than telling you to change yours — a subtle shift, but an important one.

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