How can we end workplace sexual harassment?


As we see more and more victims come forward under the #MeToo campaign, HRM examines the effectiveness of sexual harassment training.

Allegations of sexual harassment and assault that have plagued the entertainment industry and the political establishment are not, of course, confined to those sectors. As each new day seems to bring another famous name onto the front news pages, ordinary men and women are questioning, what does unacceptable behaviour look like, and what constitutes harassment?

These are questions that have left many men second guessing themselves, and essentially, freaking out. In a recent article in the New York Times, it was reported that men across a range industries such as finance, design and tech are laying low, hunkering down and actively avoiding women for fear of misconstrued behaviour and retribution.

It was reported in the Times article that some men have even banded together in all-male mobile texting groups across organisations or industries to trade their fears. Some of the issues that have arisen are, “Is it still ok to flirt?” or “Can I give a co-worker a hug?”. These groups are hardly a male anomaly, Whatsapp “whisper groups” were formed by female journalists to talk about creepy men in the media – but they are surely not the answer to the current climate of fear and suspicion, and in a workplace setting, can only be detrimental to good, productive relationships.

What about sexual harassment training?

Research conducted around the effectiveness of sexual harassment training is limited, but much of it isn’t positive. A study by the Journal of Applied Behavioural Science found that while men who received sexual harassment training were less likely to engage in such behaviour, it was most likely due to fear of being accused. They were also less likely to report harassment that they had witnessed. Shireen Bingham, co-author of the study says of the results, “It appears to be an effort at self-preservation intended to defend and protect against a perceived attack on them.”

Another study by Georgia University and Stanford researchers found that sexual harassment training can strengthen gender bias. Co-author of the paper Justine Tinkler says, “Training can also reinforce men’s feelings that women are emotional and duplicitous in the way that they both want sexual attention, but don’t want sexual harassment.”

Training should be specific and encourage respect

Schooling employees and managers on the seriousness and repercussions of sexual harassment, while it may prevent it happening, is unlikely to change attitudes. A clear goal should be in mind otherwise the exercise is futile.

Jonathan Segal, a US-based lawyer on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, runs the training program “Safe Mentoring” with a clear end goal that addresses power imbalances in working relationships. In it, he demonstrates to senior male executives how to mentor young women without harassing them. “The answer to harassment cannot be avoiding women,” says Segal. He mentioned a recent situation where a male manager had a spare ticket to a sports game, but thought he could only ask another male to attend as part of a bonding exercise. “We went over how to invite a female colleague without sexually harassing her,” says Segal.

A 2016 Equal Opportunity Commission report suggested that traditional sexual harassment training should be abandoned altogether and replaced with “respect-based interventions.” The Commission says the current approach to sexual harassment training is ineffective, and after 30 years of the same formula, it’s time to try something new. The report recommended “Workplace ‘civility training’ that does not focus on eliminating unwelcome or offensive behaviour based on characteristics protected under employment non-discrimination laws, but rather on promoting respect and civility in the workplace generally.”

Evaluating the effectiveness of the program you currently have in place is also advisable, according to the Scientific American. “Training programs, like anti-harassment policies and procedures, are symbolic evidence of legal compliance, and their potential role in actually reducing harassment is ignored,”says Vicki Magley, professor at the University of Connecticut. “As a result, training programs are rarely evidence-based and often lack meaningful content.”

Better understand how you can help address sexual harassment in your organisation or university, with AHRI’s new eLearning modules for organisations, universities and managers.

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Mark
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Mark

Valid article that raises some poignant issues, although I struggle with the focus on men as the perpetrators, admittedly the vast majority are. From a young age I was raised to treat everyone with respect and certainly keep my hands to myself, which are lessons that have served me well later in life. However, I have seen countless instances of behaviour by female colleagues that you have highlighted above with (usually) younger male colleagues being the subject of unwanted touching and innuendo. Early in my career when I raised concern over this behaviour, it was quickly laughed off by everyone… Read more »

Fiona Krautil
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Fiona Krautil

Based on our experience of designing and delivering respectful workplace training in Australian workplaces I couldn’t agree more with this article. Workplace respect training, like all training, is never a silver bullet. However when the education session is designed to be evidence based (both is terms of responding to robust workforce survey data (quantitative and qualitative), and uses proven content), is leader led, and delivered as part of a broader transformation strategy to achieve cultural safety and inclusion for all staff, participants engage in new conversations. It becomes a privilege and joy to assist leaders and staff to explore new… Read more »

Tracey
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Tracey

I think the perceived problems associated with sexual harassment training (reinforcement of men’s feeling that women…), stems from the way in which the training is developed and delivered. Training itself is not the problem – anything that helps to communicate the message that harassment of any sort is not appropriate and will not be tolerated can only be a good thing. But when the training reinforces the stereotype that women are the helpless victims and men the perpetrators, the message is misinterpreted or simply lost. Sexual harassment training itself is not ineffective, but the particular course chosen to deliver the… Read more »

Nathan Smith
Guest
Nathan Smith

Any man who doesn’t take extra precautions around women at work (no closed door or one-on-one meetings, no lunches together, having witnesses at functions, etc.) is an idiot.

The risk to men from a false accusation or a misunderstanding is enormous. The mere accusation often ends their career and livelihood. Even if such false accusations or misunderstandings are rare, so what? It’s still not worth the risk. The rational choice is just to avoid you.

Before, I mocked Mike Pence for refusing to be alone with women other than his wife. Now, I understand completely. It’s just wise.

More on HRM

How can we end workplace sexual harassment?


As we see more and more victims come forward under the #MeToo campaign, HRM examines the effectiveness of sexual harassment training.

Allegations of sexual harassment and assault that have plagued the entertainment industry and the political establishment are not, of course, confined to those sectors. As each new day seems to bring another famous name onto the front news pages, ordinary men and women are questioning, what does unacceptable behaviour look like, and what constitutes harassment?

These are questions that have left many men second guessing themselves, and essentially, freaking out. In a recent article in the New York Times, it was reported that men across a range industries such as finance, design and tech are laying low, hunkering down and actively avoiding women for fear of misconstrued behaviour and retribution.

It was reported in the Times article that some men have even banded together in all-male mobile texting groups across organisations or industries to trade their fears. Some of the issues that have arisen are, “Is it still ok to flirt?” or “Can I give a co-worker a hug?”. These groups are hardly a male anomaly, Whatsapp “whisper groups” were formed by female journalists to talk about creepy men in the media – but they are surely not the answer to the current climate of fear and suspicion, and in a workplace setting, can only be detrimental to good, productive relationships.

What about sexual harassment training?

Research conducted around the effectiveness of sexual harassment training is limited, but much of it isn’t positive. A study by the Journal of Applied Behavioural Science found that while men who received sexual harassment training were less likely to engage in such behaviour, it was most likely due to fear of being accused. They were also less likely to report harassment that they had witnessed. Shireen Bingham, co-author of the study says of the results, “It appears to be an effort at self-preservation intended to defend and protect against a perceived attack on them.”

Another study by Georgia University and Stanford researchers found that sexual harassment training can strengthen gender bias. Co-author of the paper Justine Tinkler says, “Training can also reinforce men’s feelings that women are emotional and duplicitous in the way that they both want sexual attention, but don’t want sexual harassment.”

Training should be specific and encourage respect

Schooling employees and managers on the seriousness and repercussions of sexual harassment, while it may prevent it happening, is unlikely to change attitudes. A clear goal should be in mind otherwise the exercise is futile.

Jonathan Segal, a US-based lawyer on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, runs the training program “Safe Mentoring” with a clear end goal that addresses power imbalances in working relationships. In it, he demonstrates to senior male executives how to mentor young women without harassing them. “The answer to harassment cannot be avoiding women,” says Segal. He mentioned a recent situation where a male manager had a spare ticket to a sports game, but thought he could only ask another male to attend as part of a bonding exercise. “We went over how to invite a female colleague without sexually harassing her,” says Segal.

A 2016 Equal Opportunity Commission report suggested that traditional sexual harassment training should be abandoned altogether and replaced with “respect-based interventions.” The Commission says the current approach to sexual harassment training is ineffective, and after 30 years of the same formula, it’s time to try something new. The report recommended “Workplace ‘civility training’ that does not focus on eliminating unwelcome or offensive behaviour based on characteristics protected under employment non-discrimination laws, but rather on promoting respect and civility in the workplace generally.”

Evaluating the effectiveness of the program you currently have in place is also advisable, according to the Scientific American. “Training programs, like anti-harassment policies and procedures, are symbolic evidence of legal compliance, and their potential role in actually reducing harassment is ignored,”says Vicki Magley, professor at the University of Connecticut. “As a result, training programs are rarely evidence-based and often lack meaningful content.”

Better understand how you can help address sexual harassment in your organisation or university, with AHRI’s new eLearning modules for organisations, universities and managers.

7
Leave a reply

avatar
500
  Subscribe to receive comments  
Notify me of
Mark
Guest
Mark

Valid article that raises some poignant issues, although I struggle with the focus on men as the perpetrators, admittedly the vast majority are. From a young age I was raised to treat everyone with respect and certainly keep my hands to myself, which are lessons that have served me well later in life. However, I have seen countless instances of behaviour by female colleagues that you have highlighted above with (usually) younger male colleagues being the subject of unwanted touching and innuendo. Early in my career when I raised concern over this behaviour, it was quickly laughed off by everyone… Read more »

Fiona Krautil
Guest
Fiona Krautil

Based on our experience of designing and delivering respectful workplace training in Australian workplaces I couldn’t agree more with this article. Workplace respect training, like all training, is never a silver bullet. However when the education session is designed to be evidence based (both is terms of responding to robust workforce survey data (quantitative and qualitative), and uses proven content), is leader led, and delivered as part of a broader transformation strategy to achieve cultural safety and inclusion for all staff, participants engage in new conversations. It becomes a privilege and joy to assist leaders and staff to explore new… Read more »

Tracey
Guest
Tracey

I think the perceived problems associated with sexual harassment training (reinforcement of men’s feeling that women…), stems from the way in which the training is developed and delivered. Training itself is not the problem – anything that helps to communicate the message that harassment of any sort is not appropriate and will not be tolerated can only be a good thing. But when the training reinforces the stereotype that women are the helpless victims and men the perpetrators, the message is misinterpreted or simply lost. Sexual harassment training itself is not ineffective, but the particular course chosen to deliver the… Read more »

Nathan Smith
Guest
Nathan Smith

Any man who doesn’t take extra precautions around women at work (no closed door or one-on-one meetings, no lunches together, having witnesses at functions, etc.) is an idiot.

The risk to men from a false accusation or a misunderstanding is enormous. The mere accusation often ends their career and livelihood. Even if such false accusations or misunderstandings are rare, so what? It’s still not worth the risk. The rational choice is just to avoid you.

Before, I mocked Mike Pence for refusing to be alone with women other than his wife. Now, I understand completely. It’s just wise.

More on HRM