Christine Wzorek | Forbes Councils Member
The way we currently think about sexual harassment training is a huge fail. Virtually every employee despises it; management tries to avoid it. It has, over time, become an unsubstantiated compliance checkbox and misses the mark on producing positive results. This is demonstrated in comedic and satirical references on sitcoms, within office jokes among water-cooler conversations. When we "train" for sexual harassment prevention with traditional methods, we give direct examples of how sexual harassment is committed. But sexual harassment results from strong biases and behaviors, and people who violate professional standards of conduct typically do not believe they have done anything wrong. Traditional sexual harassment training does not account for ingrained biases and accepted norms.
A high-profile task force conducted a study, and the subsequent report shows there is no measurable change on sexual harassment complaints and formal claims with traditional sexual harassment training. According to the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool – it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability. We believe effective training can reduce workplace harassment, and recognize that ineffective training can be unhelpful or even counterproductive.”
This surprise is really no surprise at all. Do we really expect people to change their learned behaviors and acceptable social norms by explicitly stating what sexual harassment is and then telling them they shouldn’t be doing it? The blaring and glaring unknown — how to achieve positive results from sexual harassment training — has become a study in breaking the bad cycle of superficial training.
Breaking the cycle can seem mysterious; however, it can easily be accomplished by reversing the psychology of our approach to sexual harassment training and identifying what our true end objective is. The true end objective all companies are searching for is instilling a resonating message of compassion where all employees are primarily concerned about each other's safety.
We can begin to administer training that discusses, educates and establishes a cohesive culture where co-workers responsibly protect one another. This actionable approach accomplishes the end objective while avoiding trigger words that inherently create negative biases of the audience and attendees, causing them to check out and dismiss the training before it starts. Certainly, even "sexual harassment" as a clear and specific term has a severe negative connotation associated with it. When people hear it they automatically and unconsciously tune it out or physically roll their eyes, and an awkward silence takes over.
Here are five simple steps to developing a results-oriented sexual harassment training:
1. Define collaborative, safety-oriented cultures, and provide examples. Choose words and verbiage that are meaningful to your company. Each organization has its own characteristic vernacular. Selecting terms that will resonate best with your group will have the most positive impact. You can begin discovery by analyzing the organizational values. What words that foster partnership and collaboration is the group using now? Sexual harassment is the result of people not respecting each other and acting in a professional manner. This is why it is important to deliver training that elicits positive emotions and actionable exercises based on respect and providing safety for the group.
2. Break out into groups of five or six people for exploratory discussions. Give each group a different topic. For example, what are five characteristics of high-functioning teams? Provide an example of the best collaborative work environment you have been part of. When did you feel most supported to share your authentic perspective or opinion at work? Let them explore through discussion how the principles in step one can be applied and what the intended impact would be.
3. Bring the teams back together. Request a spokesperson from each group to share their team’s topic, application and intended impact.
4. Draw a simple, large circle on a presentation board. The circle is a representation of group safety. Ask for volunteers to write their concept of what group safety means inside the circle. Group safety in terms of co-workers is maintaining a safe working environment for each other. How can each employee keep the workplace safe for their colleagues?
Take time to work through this exercise. Then ask for another set of volunteers to write their concept of external threats to the group outside the perimeter of the circle. Take time to work through this exercise, and discuss ideas and thoughts of the audience.
5. Provide a call to action through a resonating message of compassion and empathy of commitment to maintain the safety of the group established in step four. Give each other equal time through listening and acknowledgment to understand varying perspectives. As work teams, implement a regular occurring team-service project, taking these opportunities to create bonding opportunities and enhance the team's ability to respect others.
The beauty of this reverse psychology approach is the strength of impact and action for the group’s commitment to keeping each other safe. By demonstrating protection for the group without focusing on trigger words, in my experience of delivering training this way, there is a noticeable improvement in the reduction of claims and increased employee engagement. My company identified this through key performance indicators (KPIs) and comparing historical metrics prior to the training and metrics post-training.
Finally, it is important to not stop there. Continue the conversation, discussions and training. Before the next annual training, ask for employees who were positively impacted by the last one to share their experience. Foster an environment of collaboration and celebration for the group’s aligned care and concern to achieve a results-oriented sexual harassment training without ever having to say the term.