As awareness of workplace harassment grows, organizations are rethinking their approach to reducing the risk of sexual harassment through more effective policies, procedures and training. Employers who are serious about protecting workers from harassment should look for training that reflects their industry and work environment, and complies with evolving anti-harassment laws. To date, employers in New York, New York City, California, Illinois, Connecticut, Maine and Delaware must provide sexual harassment prevention training to their workforce. New Jersey and other states are expected to follow.
In looking at harassment training over the past 30 years, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s task force on workplace harassment suggested an alternative to the one-size-fits-all approach: regular, interactive training that is tailored to the “specific realities of different workplaces,” with realistic scenarios and examples — and in multiple languages if needed.
In its report, the EEOC task force said that training hasn’t worked in the past because it’s been too narrowly focused on legal issues and avoiding liability. Instead, effective harassment training should focus on behavior — raising awareness of what is and isn’t harassment, and the consequences of misconduct.
Sexual harassment by industry
While sexual harassment is a pervasive problem across industries, some workers are more likely to experience inappropriate behavior than others. According to analysis of EEOC data by the Center for American Progress, the largest number of sexual harassment charges filed with the EEOC from 2005 to 2015 came from employees in the food service and hospitality industries, followed by retail, manufacturing, healthcare and social services. This underscores the importance training that resonates with workers and their environment. In the restaurant industry, for example, while most workers report harassment by a direct supervisor, harassers can also be vendors, suppliers or customers. In the healthcare sector, a 2018 Medscape Medical News survey found that 27% of physicians (the majority were women) reported being sexually harassed by a patient within the past three years.
Whether the training is customized for a restaurant, medical, hotel, warehouse, retail or other setting, it’s important to cover the various types of harassment employees may encounter and emphasize that no one is required to tolerate unprofessional behavior in the workplace, no matter who is the harasser.
Organizations should also make training managers a priority. Mid-level managers and first-line supervisors can be an organization’s most valuable resource in preventing and stopping harassment and can benefit from additional training on their responsibilities to address and investigate incidents of harassment and to recognize and avoid retaliation.
Bystander intervention training and support is critical
In addition to training managers, providing bystander intervention training brings the power of the team to bear against harassment. Bystander intervention training can boost the effectiveness of anti-harassment initiatives by teaching employees different techniques and strategies for safely responding, before, during or after an incident. For example, an engaged bystander can disrupt and diffuse a potentially harmful situation by simply changing the subject and the mood.
Increased awareness of sexual harassment highlights how much work needs to be done to improve workplace culture. Tailoring training to meet the needs of workers in different industries provides a more relevant learning experience and can have a positive impact on how employees and managers respond to incidents of harassment they experience or witness. Training on a regular basis contributes to a respectful, inclusive culture and empowers individuals to address problems before they cross the line into illegal harassment.