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Is Workplace Sexual Harassment Training Effective?

We’ve recently received a flood of inquiries on sexual harassment training, from updating outdated and ineffective old training to realizing the need to establish such training. It comes as no surprise in the light of recent events from the entertainment industry to Congress, and the ascent of the #metoo movement. Organizations are taking the very necessary steps to keep their employees safe (and protect themselves from liability). For many, sexual harassment training is a top priority as we move into 2018.

Employees have been sitting through sexual harassment compliance training for decades. But, does it even work? How effective is it in actually reducing or eliminating sexual harassment in the workplace? Unfortunately, the few studies on this topic have shown that common training is not as effective as we would hope.

And so, we’re left with the question of, “why?” Is it the training program itself that’s ineffective? Can we create better training? Or are the people who are inclined to harass going to do so regardless of what their company has to say?

In order to answer that question, we must first understand what sexual harassment training should cover. Increasing awareness about behaviors that constitute harassment, formal company policies, and complaint procedures tend to be the common topics. Delivering this content has been done in a variety of ways: videos (sometimes awkward and unrealistic), eLearning (mostly check-the-box quizzes, and even at times, embarrassing face-to-face role play.

The results vary. In a study published in the Naspa Journal About Women in Higher Education, Mary Pilgram and Joann Peyton found in their primary hypothesis that, compared to pretest scores, participants would post a knowledge gain immediately after training, was unsupported when looking at combined scores. In the Journal of Applied Behavior Science, Shereen Bingham and Lisa Scherer’s study indicated a slight increase in knowledge. And their 2016 report, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, showed that while an increase in knowledge might be a benefit, training also resulted in a negative effect, in which male participants were more likely to blame the victim post-training.

We’re left with the fact that training alone is largely ineffective in its ability to change a person’s values. There are, however, recommendations on how we might move forward. The EEOC suggests that companies consider both the content and structure of compliance training. Not only should we take measures to improve the training program itself, but we should also be sure that the training is supported from the top down. The training should be conducted and reinforced on a regular basis, by qualified trainers, and last but most commonly overlooked, routinely evaluated.

Pilgram and Peyton recommend using Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Evaluation to assess the training.

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(Detailed information on this can be found here.) Specifically:

  1. Did participants like the training?
  2. Can they distinguish sexually harassing behaviors from other behaviors?
  3. Has their behavior changed? If an employee tells another employee she has been harassed, is appropriate action taken?
  4. Has the training had an effect on the culture at the company?

Most companies make the mistake of only evaluating using Levels 1 and 2.

Certainly, a blended learning approach lends itself to more effective training. A combination of (quality) video, eLearning, classroom training, and performance support after-the-fact would follow the EEOC’s recommendations for improvement. In fact, the report found that:

“Trainings that happened in-person and lasted longer than four hours produced a bigger effect; short and virtual trainings had less of an impact. Trainings that asked participants to interact with each other worked better than straight lectures. Participants learned more from trainings led by their supervisor or an external expert, and less when the leader was a colleague without direct authority over their day-to-day work—for example, an HR official.”

Allowing time for self-study was also a recommendation. Eden King, a George Mason University psychologist who studies sexual harassment and diversity training, suggests that having employees free-write from the perspective of a stigmatized colleague may generate empathy. And obviously, any sexual harassment training program should be customized for each company’s specific culture, as “off-the-shelf” solutions have regularly failed.

As the culture focuses on this issue, and the movement towards respect for our colleagues (and people in general) gains momentum, now is the perfect opportunity for a training revamp, and a path to a safer and happier workplace. 

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Bingham, S.G., & Scherer, L.L. (2001). The unexpected effects of a sexual harassment educational program. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science37, 125–153.

EEOC, Report, Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace (June 2016), https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/task_force/harassment/report.cfm.

Pilgram, Mary & Keyton, Joann. (2009). Evaluation of Sexual Harassment Training Instructional Strategies. Naspa Journal About Women in Higher Education. 2. . 10.2202/1940-7890.1032.