It’s been a long time since the first legal case of sexual harassment hit the courts in 1974. One might think employers have solved the issue of workplace sexual harassment, and that it no longer needs attention.
Unfortunately, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The #metoo movement has highlighted the need for continued efforts to provide sexual harassment training.
If your company has never provided employees with sexual harassment prevention training, it’s time to start. Because you’re reading this guide, it seems you’re ready to lead. Good for you!
Still, it can be difficult to determine the best way to begin and then maintain a sexual harassment prevention training program.
This guide’s purpose to is to give you the information you need to make good decisions as you work to set up your training initiative to succeed.
Use the links below to find the answers to your specific questions.
Table of Contents
- Sexual Harassment Prevention Training Goals
- Get Sexual Harassment Training Approved
- Employee Sexual Harassment Training Content
- Supervisor Sexual Harassment Training Content
- Characteristics of Effective Training
- Sexual Harassment Training Delivery Options
- Define the Focus
- Live vs. E-learning
- Length and Frequency
- In-house vs. Outsource
- Your Sexual Harassment Prevention Strategy
Sexual Harassment Training Goals
Begin as you would with any important business objectives. Identify meaningful goals. Here’s a list of possible goal statements for you to consider:
- We are compliant with state or local laws.
- We have a legal defense should the company be sued.
- We have high standards for personal conduct.
- People who have experienced harassment, report it.
- People who report harassment are treated fairly.
- Leaders competently manage workplace respect.
Add to this list or modify these to meet your needs. Then focus on the most important ones. Just be sure they represent what you want to achieve.
You’ll also help yourself if you make them specific and measurable. Extra points if you can quantify the current state and the amount of change you want to see within a specific time frame.
More Complaints Is a Good Thing
A successful sexual harassment prevention training program may well increase the number of complaints you receive. Your leaders might consider that a failure.
It’s actually a sign of a successful sexual harassment training initiative. You need to preemptively warn people of this possibility and why it’s positive.
Should you find yourself dealing with more complaints, celebrate this tangible indicator of progress.
As a company, you can’t solve problems that you don’t know about. Helping people feel more comfortable and teaching them how to report problems are both excellent goals.
Get Sexual Harassment Training Approved
Perhaps you don’t need to be convinced that your company should add sexual harassment prevention training. HR people get it. The problem is you can’t make it happen without the leadership team’s support.
There are at least three things you need them to do to support this initiative:
- Provide funding
- Ask their employees to participate
- Reinforce the program’s key messages
The odds are high that you will run into resistance. Your leaders won’t help you unless they see value in this initiative.
You may not be able to build a traditional business case that demonstrates a positive return on investment. After all, a lot of this work’s benefit is about preventing problems. The return comes through the money saved by keeping the company out of legal problems. There are also potential savings in preventing problems that can lead to lower productivity or increased turnover.
What you should be ready to do is have a conversation that addresses their most likely concerns. It isn’t hard to anticipate the reasons they might object. Let’s take them one at a time and consider how you might effectively counter each.
“There’s No Budget for This”
This may be a deal-breaker, but only for the current budget year. Sexual harassment training will require funding. If you know your company generally doesn’t spend money on initiatives that aren’t budgeted, then you should be making your business case before the budget cycle begins with a goal to secure funding in the next budget.
On the other hand, if you see a major need for it right now, you could counter with something like, “We haven’t budgeted fighting a lawsuit either, but based on what I’m seeing lately, I think that’s a real risk.”
Remember that budgets are just a plan about how to spend the money. It doesn’t mean that’s how the money will be spent. If you’re a new HR manager and have walked into a situation that demands more urgent attention, ask for a small amount of money to get started and then make the case for next year.
“We Don’t Have a Problem”
If your leaders believe everything’s fine and don’t see a reason to do training, you might ask, “How do you know we’re good?”
You’ll undoubtedly hear that there haven’t been any complaints. That’s when you might ask these follow-up questions, “Have you ever witnessed or heard about employees…
- telling dirty jokes,
- flirting at work, or
- commenting about a ‘hot’ coworker?”
Anyone who has been working for more than a couple years likely has first-hand experience of this behavior.
That’s when you ask, “Did anyone formally complain about the behavior?”
Assuming the answer is “No,” you can point out that the vast majority of sexual harassment incidents go unreported for a variety of reasons:
- Fear of retaliation
- Don’t want to make waves
- Not sure who to talk to
- Not sure how to file a complaint
- Didn’t want to get a coworker in trouble
When it comes to sexual harassment, no news is not necessarily good news. It’s certainly not evidence that your workplace is free of sexual harassment. Knowing about problems is always better than not knowing.
You might also engage your manager in a conversation about risk factors. This article explains 10 common sexual harassment risk factors. How many are present in your workplace?
“This Might Give People Ideas”
Managers sometimes worry that conducting sexual harassment training might cause more problems. What they mean is that the training will inform people that they should complain and how to so. And when that happens, it’s an instant headache for everyone who has to deal with the problem.
Of all the objections you might hear, this one will be the most surprising. You’ll need to be ready, or it will throw you off your game.
Start with this question, “Are you saying that teaching people about what they shouldn’t do and say at work will encourage more inappropriate behavior?”
With a little luck, the response should be something like, “No, I’m saying more people will complain about it. More people might even think about suing us. Right now, we aren’t getting any complaints. I don’t want to stir things up.”
At this point, you can use everything we discussed in the previous section, addressing the We Don’t Have a Problem objection.
Your Employees Already Are Informed and Encouraged
Then add these two points.
- The #metoo movement has brought a lot of visibility to this issue. People who are harassed are getting lots of information from social media and the news media about sexual harassment. The willingness people have to report problems is increasing. Wouldn’t it be better for them to report their concerns to us so that we can address them, rather than having them complain on social media or call a lawyer?
- Governments are getting more involved in this issue. States have begun mandating sexual harassment prevention training. Currently, these states include: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, New York, and Washington (for some industries). More states are likely to follow. When that happens in states where we do business, we’ll have to do this training anyway. Our intention to improve the work climate will be better received if we do sexual harassment training before we are forced to do it.
“We’re Too Busy”
This is another tough one. It’s likely people are busy. Who isn’t busy these days?
Busy is the easy excuse. The real concern is leadership’s desire to maintain high levels of productivity. They don’t want your sexual harassment training program to pull people away from their work.
While they may be fine with you or your team taking the time to work on this, they’re calculating the time commitment of requiring every employee to spend an hour or so participating in some sort of class.
First, agree that building awareness and skills will require some amount of time from everyone.
Next, explain that you want the training’s focus to be building a respectful workplace. When employees feel respected and safe at work, they tend to work harder.
Conversely, when some employees behave badly, it hurts productivity; as their targets work through their emotions and then start talking to coworkers about what they experienced.
You Risk Lost Productivity and Turnover
Also, a hostile work environment leads to employee turnover. Imagine your best sales people leaving because clients are sexually coming on to them. If your most productive employees leave because of how others are treating them, there will be a much larger productivity issue to deal with.
You might also point out that investing some time up front, when it can be planned, is preferable to the vast amount of time that is consumed when we have to jump in and deal with trouble.
Hopefully you won’t have to pull out the Ben Franklin quote, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” But if you need it, use it. It does do a nice job of summing up your argument.
“We’re Too Small to Have Classes”
This is a legitimate objection. Suppose you have less than a couple hundred employees and at any one time most of them are needed to serve customers or keep the line running.
Maybe you could pull a half dozen people together at a time into a classroom for training, but that’s not cost effective if you do a cost/employee analysis.
In this situation, talk about e-learning, and the advantages it has which will help you train everyone without disrupting normal operations.
“We’re too Big”
When you have thousands of employees, the concern might shift to the sheer size of the training challenge. Again, e-learning is likely the best option.
When you purchase courseware from a vendor, the price per employee usually drops significantly as the number of employees increases. It can be quite economical when the numbers get big.
If you are committed to real-time training, you could work with a partner who has access to lots of trainers or you could also pursue a train-the-trainer strategy so that you create a large team of internal employees who are equipped to deliver this training.
Employee Sexual Harassment Training Content
Your sexual harassment training needs to meet basic requirements. At a minimum, employees should learn:
- The definition of sexual harassment and the behaviors that fit the definition, along with those that could potentially rise to that level.
- What to do if they are the target of or witness to prohibited conduct.
- The company’s reporting procedures, including who they can contact.
- Possible consequences for violating the policy.
- That retaliation is illegal.
When states mandate training, they often have additional specific content requirements. For example, California requires that employees are taught remedies available for sexual harassment victims in civil actions and potential employer/individual exposure/liability.
Get Past the Minimum Requirements
While your training must meet the minimum requirements, it will have more impact if you also teach employees:
- How to assertively tell someone who is harassing them to stop.
- How to respond if someone tells them to stop.
- How to step in as a bystander and champion respect.
- How to act inclusively, embracing diversity.
- How to identify and address unconscious biases.
- What it means to treat someone with respect.
Supervisor Sexual Harassment Training Content
Managers and supervisors need to learn everything that employees need. They’re employees too and can also be the target of illegal workplace harassment.
There is more for them to learn. Their responsibilities extend further to include:
- How to set and enforce behavioral expectations.
- How to monitor the work environment for potential sexual harassment.
- How to proactively intervene when they become aware of an issue.
- How to react when an employee brings them a sexual harassment complaint.
- How to conduct a sexual harassment investigation.
- How to take appropriate action at the conclusion of an investigation.
- How to avoid retaliatory conduct.
Again, states and local governments that mandate training may have added specifics about what managers need to know. Be sure to check your local requirements.
If you want to better equip managers, you’ll also teach them how to:
- Have tough conversations.
- How to build consensus about what constitutes acceptable behavior.
We offer training solutions that includes all of this content and more.
Characteristics of Effective Sexual Harassment Training
The EEOC completed a large study of sexual harassment prevention training practices and offers some excellent guidelines you may choose to adopt.
Task Force Recommendations
Here’s the list of best practices pulled straight from the task force’s report.
- Championed by senior leaders;
- Repeated and reinforced regularly;
- Provided to employees at every level and location of the organization;
- Provided in a clear, easy to understand style and format;
- Provided in all languages commonly used by employees;
- Tailored to the specific workplace and workforce;
- Conducted by qualified, live, interactive trainers, or, if live training is not feasible, designed to include active engagement by participants; and
- Routinely evaluated by participants and revised as necessary.
Here are a few more that should be added to the list:
- Make it engaging: People don’t learn if you don’t first grab their attention. Making them sit through the same boring presentation by the company’s attorney who quotes a lot of case law isn’t going to open many minds or inspire behavior change.
- Make the examples real: A lot of sexual harassment training uses examples that just aren’t believable. If people don’t see the scenarios as credible, they’ll quickly tune out.
- Deal with the nuance: Hopefully, everyone already knows that it’s illegal for a supervisor to promise an employee a raise in exchange for sex. Telling them what they already know isn’t a good use of precious time. Get into the gray areas and emerging topics that people don’t know. For example, when is okay and not okay to compliment coworkers on their appearance? Or, is it sexual harassment to date a coworker?
- Make it safe: You want people to ask questions and put their opinions out there. They’ll only do so if you encourage it and demonstrate you are willing and able to handle what they say with respect.
- Managers follow up: Check in later with employees to find out what they thought about the training and to address questions or concerns they may still have.
Sexual Harassment Training Delivery Options
There are several sexual harassment prevention training delivery options you need to work through. These include:
- The training’s focus and scope
- Live vs. e-learning
- Length and frequency
- In-source or outsource
Let’s examine each in more detail.
Define the Focus and Scope
Earlier we looked at large goals for your prevention efforts. Training will likely only be one element of your overall approach to accomplishing those goals.
You have to determine the focus of your training program.
Option 1: Sexual Harassment Only
Focuses only on sexual harassment training for employees and a separate course for managers. Cover the basics we discussed earlier, plus anything else state or a local governments might require.
Option 2: All Discrimination
Expands the training to include other sorts of illegal discriminatory behaviors. While sexual harassment is a problem, so is harassment based on other protected classes. Take a peek at this article to learn about 58 different protected classes that exist in U.S. states.
Option 3: Respect
Expands the scope further still to add positive actions employees can take to contribute to a respectful, healthy work environment.
The Case for Doing More Than Compliance
Getting beyond sexual harassment makes sense, even if states don’t require it. While you want employees to learn they shouldn’t comment on a person’s appearance, you may also want them to learn that teasing people about religious practices or making derogatory comments about ethnic groups is also a problem.
You also might recognize that managers need to take a broader approach because they aren’t simply interested in compliance, but rather they need high functioning teams in which everyone feels respected. Learn more about the five levels of leadership accountability in this article.
Should you decide to focus on respect, you can create a much more effective session. The focus changes from telling employees what they shouldn’t do to what they should do. This gives your training a more positive vibe, and that helps employees learn more effectively.
If your main interest is compliance, a narrow focus would be the best option. If you want the training to create a positive impact on your workplace, consider a broader scope. This will add a little time, but it’s hard to argue that it’s not worth the effort.
Live vs. E-learning Sexual Harassment Training
Once you know what your training will address, the next question is whether to deliver it live or through an e-learning option.
Live means classroom-style training or live webinars. People are all gathered in one place or online at the same time.
- Trainers can adjust to group
- Instructors can address questions as they come up
- Leaders can notice people who aren’t engaging and pull them in
- Technology rarely becomes an obstacle
- More costly
- Challenges of serving remote employees, especially across time zones
- Needing to have enough employees who can step away from work at the same time to justify an instructor-led session
- If you use multiple trainers, the messaging may be inconsistent
- Less expensive
- Easier to administer
- Ensures a consistent message
- Works well across geography and time zones
- Easy to track
- Learners need to be able to access technology
- If not well done, it won’t be interactive
- Hard to choose among many vendors
- Can quickly become outdated in content and style
- Can seem repetitive if you need to deliver same content annually
You might also do a mix. The most logical combination would be to do live training for managers and supervisors because you need them to lead the charge on creating a respectful workplace. They typically are easier to pull together into one place.
Then, because of their larger numbers and the difficulty in getting them together at the same time due to distance or work requirements, use e-learning for employees.
If you have large numbers of employees in one place, you might be tempted to do live training for some employees and e-learning for others. Generally, that’s not a good idea if they will receive training that’s different than what their remote coworkers get.
Length and Frequency
While your desired scope and delivery method will impact length and frequency, state laws also will influence them.
Federal law doesn’t require you provide sexual harassment training. Training mandates come from states and local governments. Your legal advisers likely will also highly recommend it.
States that require training sometimes stipulate minimum lengths and frequency. Here are some examples:
California requires one hour for employees and two hours for supervisors. Training must be repeated every two years.
Connecticut requires two hours for all employees within six months of hire, but doesn’t specify whether it needs to be repeated.
New York doesn’t specify a length, but requires it to occur annually.
To cover the subject well, you should plan at least an hour for all employees. Supervisors need more time to understand their responsibilities. 90 to 120 minutes is reasonable for them.
In-house vs. Outsource
Now you’re ready to answer the final question. Who is going to build, deliver, and manage this training initiative? Do you and your staff want to tackle this project yourself or outsource it?
Another possibility would be a hybrid model, splitting these major tasks:
- Develop subject matter expertise
- Build content (Online or instructor-led)
- Research content vendors (If you’re leaning towards outsourcing)
- Manage scheduling and enrollment process
- Deliver courses (Classroom, webinar, or assign e-learning modules)
- Address questions
- Maintain records
Obviously, your capacity and know-how will influence your decision. For live sessions, doing it yourself may appear to save some money because your staff are less expensive than external trainers.
Just don’t forget to take into account the opportunity cost. If you or your team are tied down building and delivering courses, there may well be high-value work that’s being left undone.
Buy the Courseware
It generally doesn’t make sense to build your own online courseware. There are plenty of good options on the market that are well-researched, well-designed, and cost effective. It’s unlikely you can create courseware for less than what’s already available.
Only very large companies with tens of thousands of employees might see a financial advantage to creating their own program. Do a cost analysis before deciding.
For e-learning options, you may want to check out these microlearning HR compliance courses that we offer. They offer a refreshing approach to typical HR compliance training.
Consider Customizing Courseware
While you shouldn’t build your own online course, you may want the option of customizing the courseware with your own policy and reporting procedures. You may also want to white label it.
Reputable courseware vendors should provide the option for you to do these customizations yourself or do the work for a reasonable fee.
Your Sexual Harassment Prevention Strategy
Employers that want to eliminate their sexual harassment risk typically take a four-pronged approach:
- They develop and distribute an anti-harassment policy that includes a strong harassment reporting process.
- They provide employee sexual harassment training so everyone is clear about the policy and how to report problems.
- They take complaints seriously, promptly investigating any harassment reports.
- They make sure their leaders set clear expectations and act as strong role models.
Someone needs to step up and champion this effort. You’ve taken the time to read this guide, so let’s say that person is you.
You Don’t Need to Do This on Your Own
It’s easy to feel intimidated or overwhelmed by this process. Even if you’re a one-person HR department, you don’t have to take this on alone.
While this guide shouldn’t be viewed as legal advice (that’s what attorneys do), it should help you identify the key questions you need to answer and provide some helpful advice about how to overcome some of the common challenges associated with implementing a new sexual harassment prevention training program.
If you’d like a copy of the guide in PDF format, you may download it here.
We’re happy to discuss your questions that you may still have after reading this guide.
In addition, we can provide you with e-learning courseware, conduct instructor-led training, or support you to pursue a train-the-trainer option.
If you found this guide helpful, we’d appreciate the opportunity to help you create a respectful and productive workplace.
Tom LaForce is the founder of LaForce Teamwork Services, a training and consulting business dedicated to helping companies build strong, healthy, and inspiring organizations.
Since 1996 he’s provided clients with:
- workshops on a broad range of leadership and professional development topics,
- meeting facilitation for planning and problem-solving,
- team-building for groups struggling to perform or get along,
- one-on-one leadership coaching, and
- e-learning courseware.
His clients include companies, government, and non-profits.
Prior to starting his own company, he developed his skills over nine years at Dataserv, a national computer services firm.