A blended learning program will have the most impact on preventing unwanted behavior.
Since #MeToo exploded in October 2017, many employers have been thinking about updating their anti-harassment training.
But even before the movement began, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a U.S. government agency that administers and enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination, recommended that employers make significant changes to their programs. Then in June 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report that had been two years in the making, compiling all the available research on anti-harassment training. The data show what works, and what doesn't, to prevent harassment.
If you haven't made changes to your anti-harassment program lately, now is the time. And if you have made changes, understand that you should continuously improve your training in this area.
The EEOC guidance made two major recommendations. First, rather than focusing on what not to do, training should emphasize what to do—specifically, behaviors that create a respectful workplace. Second, teach employees how to intervene and stop harassment if they're bystanders.
Similarly, the National Academies report shows that training should focus on behaviors. According to the research, changing employees' behavior was more important than trying to increase employees' understanding of the law (boring!) or change their attitudes (virtually impossible).
The same research found that video and online training do not work to change behavior. Period. The most effective training, the National Academies concluded, was live, expert-conducted training. The optimal length for training to be effective was four hours. That's because when you have that much time, employees can practice the behavior change you want.
Many employers—and their training teams—can't imagine creating a four-hour program on harassment prevention, much less mandating it for all employees. However, you can blend existing learning programs with some new approaches to create an effective strategy that should meet both the EEOC's and the National Academies' recommendations. Here's how.
Connect existing soft skills training to harassment prevention
Some years ago, a high-tech company piloted a one-week manager boot camp. The first four days focused on interpersonal skills such as situational leadership and emotional intelligence. The last day was a legal compliance program. At the end of the week, some managers said legal compliance should have come first, because they thought everything else was not important. When they learned about the legal requirements, they understood that soft skills are the foundation for creating a respectful workplace, preventing harassment, and avoiding lawsuits.
People skills classes typically cover social skills, flexibility, communication, conflict resolution, professionalism, courtesy, responsibility, positive attitude, negotiation, persuasion, integrity, and teamwork. Those are exactly the behaviors that create a respectful workplace where harassment is less likely to happen.
In 2018, a manager told me that teamwork is the most important quality his employees could have. Then he said it was a waste of time to send them to anti-harassment training—as if it were a completely different topic. How can you build a team if some members are harassing others?
To make these types of interpersonal skills training part of your overall strategy, add content at the beginning that illustrates how these skills will prevent learners from perhaps unintentionally harassing others. These skills may also help them intervene to stop harassment when they see it. Add "preventing harassment" to the learning objectives. Revise some of the examples or stories you use and turn them into vignettes related to harassment or disrespect. At the end, reinforce the learning point.
If you don't currently provide this type of training, you can add it to your offerings as part of your overall anti-harassment compliance program. This will boost the perceived and actual return on investment.
Assess online and video training for compliance with EEOC guidelines
Although the National Academies research found that online and video training alone are ineffective, they can be used as part of an overall strategy—but only if they're good.
Too many online and video courses insult the intelligence of employees. They're boring and obvious. They treat harassment as a stand-alone topic rather than integrating it into an overall strategy related to the organization's values. And many employers expect employees to sit through the exact same video or online course every year or two.
With the new EEOC guidance, you'll want to find or develop online or video training that focuses on two issues: the behaviors that create a respectful workplace and how employees should intervene if they're bystanders. Look for or create videos that briefly show what not to do but also emphasize what to do. This approach is consistent with adult learning principles. The most effective training demonstrates desirable behavior, not the undesirable.
Whether you use in-house or outside suppliers, replace the program every one to two years. That will ensure you have the latest information and will keep learners more engaged than if they have to watch a repeat.
Develop modules created by in-house SMEs
Once you have your people skills and online or video training in place, ask yourself what additional information employees need in your workplace.
New-hire orientation is the place to introduce the subject. It sets the right tone from the beginning and demonstrates the company's commitment. If you're talking about the organization's values—such as respect, empowerment, self-improvement, integrity, partnership, communication, and teamwork—relate those values to the company's policy and promise to create a harassment-free workplace.
In a separate section on harassment, pass out copies of the company policy, go over the definition of harassment, and point out the exact process employees should follow if they have a question, concern, or complaint. Encourage employees to go to HR with questions, not wait until they think they have a complaint. That will increase the likelihood that the employer will get an early warning of a potential problem.
New-hire orientation is also the place to give employees a preview of their future training. Give them a learning journey map so they see the soft skills classes they'll be expected to take and how all the programs integrate to create a respectful workplace.
Pick an outside consultant to fill in the gaps
Many organizations find they can begin to develop an effective strategy with those three steps. Two gaps may remain for some.
One is providing bystander intervention training. This does not mean that employees just hear about it or even watch a video demonstration. It means they actually practice the skills. Your in-house resources may be able to create live, interactive behavior skills practice training. If not, outside consultants can create a program for your staff to present, or the consultants can provide the training themselves.
Another possible gap is executive training. Let's face it: The chance of getting top executives to take any training is remote. But they clearly need it—not because they necessarily are harassing employees, but because any misstep by them will create serious corporate liability.
So, how do you get the message to your top executives? Many organizations find that bringing in an outside consultant gets more attention than having corporate counsel or the HR, talent development, or organizational development team do it. Some have brought in their outside lawyers to lecture the executives, but as one of my clients put it, "They were so boring, they put everybody to sleep; no one asked questions; and they didn't change their behavior." Instead, look for trainers who happen to be employment lawyers who know how to get executives interested and engaged.
Put it all together
When you have the pieces in place, ensure that your learning management system tracks all this training as part of your company's anti-harassment strategy.
Create a timeline for the new strategy's implementation. Perhaps require both new and existing employees to take the new online training within the first 30 days of hire or program launch. All employees should receive a copy of the company's latest harassment policy and sign an acknowledgement. Then each employee should attend an interpersonal skills class during the next 11 months. The following year could be another soft skills training class. The third year, employees would see a new online or video anti-harassment course. After that, alternate every other year with either a personal skills class or an anti-harassment training course, unless such training is required yearly by law or is considered desirable.
Managers are responsible for ensuring that employees attend training and apply what they've learned. You may need to train managers to identify and document specific respectful (and disrespectful) behaviors as part of the performance evaluation process. Managers themselves should be evaluated for their efforts to demonstrate respectful behavior in all they say and do. Managers may need to coach employees on being respectful and send them to additional soft skills training to bring their performance up to par.
For positive reinforcement, think of fun, meaningful ways to celebrate staff members who demonstrate respect. One idea: Employees could post stories of specific "random acts of respect" they've received from others.
The National Academies research found that men are more likely to harass in organizations where women believe there is a risk to them reporting harassment, their complaints will not be taken seriously, and offenders will not be punished. But the research also shows that an environment that does not tolerate harassment significantly reduces the likelihood of harassment, even by individuals who are likely to harass otherwise.
The research identifies two prongs to creating an environment that is perceived to not tolerate harassment. First, HR must respond to complaints by conducting prompt, thorough investigations; taking appropriate disciplinary actions; and ensuring no retaliation against the individuals who complain. Second, by providing effective training, organizations assure employees that they are committed to preventing harassment.
By adopting a blended learning approach using a combination of soft skills training, online or video content, in-house modules, and outside consulting, you can prevent harassment and create a respectful workplace where women and men will thrive.
This article is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information. It is published with the understanding that neither the author nor the publisher is engaged in rendering legal advice about the subject matter. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, please consult an attorney.