Harassment Training: How is that Video or Annual Talk Working?

As I have written in this space previously, I believe the attention to sexual harassment issues flowing from #MeToo, particularly the heightened awareness of the scope of unreported harassment even in organizations that are following all of the established rules, is going to gradually change the law’s expectations of employers and therefore all of our work lives. I want to pick up and expand upon an important piece of that puzzle – harassment training.

Almost all of us have had the training. If you haven’t, well your company almost certainly should be providing it as part of optimally protecting itself from harassment related liability. It is usually an hour or two in length. It is delivered as often as annually, or less frequently such as upon beginning employment or, frankly, after somebody in the company lost his (usually) way and it is appropriately determined that an organizational refresher is in order.

It can be delivered in any number of ways. Your HR professionals might provide it. The company might hire an outside consultant or pay your company attorney to provide. Increasingly in recent years, the company may enlist an outside company to provide canned videos by people who do not even know anybody who works for your company.

While certainly there are many good presenters in each of those categories, I question how much this training really works. First, who thinks that the invitation to come down to HR, or listen to a consultant or a lawyer, or watch a video, motivates an employee to expand the mind, critically assess his or her assumptions, and change behavior that needs to be changed? I have managed a lot of people and consulted with a lot of clients who are managing even more people, and I don’t see it.

More specifically, I see the persistence of sexual harassment after literally decades of diligent efforts by all the types of professionals noted above as resulting from two behaviors we have yet to really figure out:

  • Victims’ reluctance to report harassment. Gather a small group of potential harassment victims of different ages and backgrounds and ask them why some people do not report workplace harassment – you will see this is a complex and difficult matter for many people. Yet, undoubtedly the company wants to know about the behavior so it has an opportunity to address issues.
  • Some men (mostly) cannot or do not figure out how to regulate their behavior.

Picture a hypothetical person representing each of these challenges and ask yourself: Is that annual (or less) hour going to change these behaviors? With exceptions of course, I do not believe that it is.

We could fill The Metropreneur for a few weeks trying to unwind the complexities of these behaviors, but I submit that the important step towards changing behaviors is making employee education an ongoing process rather than an event. Rather than the tempting invitations “hey, come down to HR for a lecture” or “you must watch this video, and you will have to click a box every few minutes to show us you’re still alive (because the video may not be stimulating enough to ensure that),” consider tools that allow for ongoing awareness of these challenging issues.

Acknowledge that the issues are challenging, and that your company is in the business of solving challenging problems with its great team – and this team is going to work together to solve this one. For example, I have been working to create short biweekly videos for clients. They can be used any variety of ways, but could be a small part of periodic staff meetings, followed by staff discussion. This is just one idea; the entrepreneurial readers of this publication can undoubtedly think of others!

Don’t abandon the old training just yet. The law has in effect recognized that traditional training as part of an accepted compliance program, and it is probably premature to make the complete change away from it just yet. But companies that think in new and creative ways about harassment training will, I predict, benefit soon as various decisionmakers’ (such as judges and juries) expectations change.

Barnes & Thornburg LLP is a large, full-service law firm that seeks to take a more entrepreneurial and cost-effective approach both to client service and its own business.