The Most Effective Sexual Harassment Training Puts People First

February 8, 2023 | Diversity & Inclusion | 7 min read

Most U.S. states don’t legally require anti-harassment training, but every company should make it a priority. Here’s why — and how — you should do it.

The sexual harassment scandals that hit the headlines tend to be the most shocking ones, characterized by long-term coverups and massive fines. In 2022, for example, television network CBS agreed to pay a $30.5 million settlement after it was determined that the company’s executive leaders knew about and covered up multiple sexual assault allegations against its former CEO. Likewise, in 2020, Google paid a $310 million settlement over accusations that the company hid the misconduct of Google executives and failed to prevent sexual harassment.

But actually, harassment is even more pervasive — and yet less visible — than these stories suggest. According to a report from the United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO), 6.3 percent of employees worldwide — 205 million people — have experienced sexual violence and harassment at work. Many of these victims never go public. The ILO found that only 54.4 percent of victims share their experiences. When they do, they’re far more likely to tell close friends and family than to file official complaints.

Sexual harassment often goes undiscovered and unpunished, but its adverse effects are felt all the same. Studies show that sexual harassment damages team cohesion; increases employee turnover; hinders long-term financial performance; and stymies diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. And that’s to say nothing of the effect on employees. Research has linked sexual harassment with low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Sexual harassment is widespread and dangerous. It may even be happening in your organization right now, but employees may be too afraid to speak up. And yet, only 20 percent of U.S. workers live in states where sexual harassment training is mandatory.

Regardless of legal requirements, every company should provide employees with regular, relevant, empowering sexual harassment training so they know what harassment looks like, what to do if you see it or experience it, and where to go for refuge and relief. Here’s how to do it.

Where to Start with Sexual Harassment Training

While some states legally require training, the details of those requirements can vary widely. Some states clearly specify what training must be offered and when. New York, for example, requires that every company provides annual, interactive sexual harassment training.

Other states are less specific. Washington law requires sexual harassment training only at companies that employ “isolated workers” like housekeepers and security guards; it doesn’t stipulate the kind of training or set a schedule for when training must happen.

The takeaway is that laws and regulations can be useful guidelines when they exist, but only following mandates won’t lead to an effective anti-harassment program. So where should a company start?

At a basic level, a sexual harassment training program needs to clearly define what harassment is. Employees can’t recognize and stop misconduct if they don’t know what to look for. Courses on understanding & recognizing unlawful harassment, including applicable federal and state laws, should form the bedrock of any program.

Next, employees need to know what to do about harassment when they see it. Unfortunately, many people don’t have that knowledge. According to the ILO survey, a lack of clarity on proper reporting procedures is one of the main reasons people don’t speak up about harassment. Effective anti-harassment training must include courses that clearly explain how employees can report harassment, including both company-specific policies and legal avenues, and what happens after an employee reports harassment – importantly, what will be done about it and how the company promises to handle the claim.

But employees can only do so much on their own. An organization’s managers, executives, and Board pf Directors are responsible for ensuring harassment complaints are handled effectively. If they don’t have the knowledge and the tools they need to help employees, employees will lose confidence in the company and stop reporting altogether. For that reason, anti-harassment training must include courses tailored toward managers.

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3 Keys to Creating an Empowering Anti-Harassment Program

But as we all know, covering the right topics is only the first step in crafting effective sexual harassment training. The topics need to be presented in ways that resonate with employees. How training is delivered can be the difference between a learning experience that is run-of-the-mill and one that makes the workplace safer for everyone.

Relevance, meaning, and emotion are the key ingredients to effective learning. Here’s how you can incorporate those factors into anti-harassment training.

1. Focus on People, Not Compliance

First, a caveat: It’s crucial that anti-harassment training complies with all relevant laws and regulations. Be sure to check the legal obligations in your state.

But anti-harassment training needs to be more than just “complying” or a tick-the-box exercise. Employees don’t find those kinds of programs very engaging, and if they aren’t engaged, they won’t retain what they’ve learned.

Instead, sexual harassment training should focus on the needs of the employees. For workers, sexual harassment isn’t an abstract legal concept. It’s an all-too-real problem that they, their coworkers, and their loved ones might face. The more human your training is, the more absorbing it will be. Employees will want to engage with the content rather than see it as a chore.

In particular, training should empower employees to advocate for themselves and others and intervene or escalate when needed. Consider grounding training in real-life examples, and include courses exploring nuanced topics like why people hesitate to report. Include bystander intervention training to help employees understand, empathize with, and intervene for coworkers facing harassment.

Courses on the benefits of creating a harassment-free workplace can also be helpful. Culture, productivity, DEI, and employee well-being all flourish when people feel safe at work. If employees understand this in concrete terms, they’ll be more invested in doing their part to end harassment.

2. Make Training Relevant

It’s common wisdom that training should be tailored to the individual learner to achieve the best results. Why, then, do so many sexual harassment training programs still take a one-size-fits-all approach?

You know your culture and your workforce. You know what kind of content resonates best with them. Employees trust training more when it reflects their lives, so consider adopting an anti-harassment training program that allows you to customize learning most relevant to your employees.

For example, Skillsoft’s workplace harassment training features an extensive library of interchangeable video content representing various workplace settings and audiences. Program leaders can choose from “standard” options, more aligned with typical training, and “edgier” options that more closely reflect the real world. The library also contains real people who have experienced, firsthand, the impact of harassment

It’s also important to deliver training and learning experiences frequently—on a regular, recurring basis. The language we use to talk about harassment and the practices we use to deal with it change over time. Those changes can happen quickly: Think about how rapidly the public conversation around sexual harassment evolved in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

By making training an ongoing activity rather than a one-time thing, you can ensure your employees can respond appropriately in real time to the situations in front of them.

3. Connect Training to Your Culture

No matter how engaging and relevant your anti-harassment training is, it won’t mean much to employees if they feel like the initiatives aren’t being supported and enabled within your organization. Employees need to see that the company takes harassment prevention seriously, and leaders and managers have a crucial role to play here.

Leaders and managers should exhibit the practices discussed in training, make space for employees to share their concerns, and communicate the importance of deterring and stopping harassment. When employees see their leaders modeling anti-harassment behaviors, they’ll find it easier to do their part in speaking up when they see harassment.

As a bonus, making anti-harassment training a real, lived part of the company culture can also encourage employee loyalty. When employees see the company walking the walk, they’ll feel more valued, respected, and cared for. That, in turn, fosters greater retention.

For Effective Anti-Harassment Training, Look Beyond the Law

Engaging, empowering anti-harassment training can have a massive return on investment for an organization. Employees experiencing harassment are roughly $22,500 less productive than their coworkers, and they’re 6.5 times more likely to leave their jobs.

Replacing these departing employees can cost as much as twice their salary. Effective training can significantly mitigate these costs while creating a culture of readiness in which employees feel safe, valued, and encouraged to act. All of that leads to a more efficient — and thriving — organization.

As a first step toward implementing impactful anti-harassment training, take a look at this interactive map of workplace harassment mandates by state. Familiarize yourself with any legal requirements your company may be under.

But don’t stop there. Compliance is just the beginning. Skillsoft can help you build a workplace harassment training program that meets your state’s mandates and empowers your employees to create a better workplace for everyone.