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.”