Making Sexual Harassment Training Effective

Making Sexual Harassment Training Effective

03/25/19 Laura Gibbons

By Mary-Ellen Sposato Rogers and Patricia Herlihy

Employees need to be educated about the legal, ethical, and business issues regarding sexual conduct in the workplace. However, many researchers are questioning the effectiveness of current sexual harassment training programs. Few studies have found post-training reductions in sexual harassment behaviors and none have identified effective trainings. We will focus on a potential shift in these trainings from a concentration on information to behavioral issues.

First, a basic definition of sexual harassment is in order. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sexual harassment includes:
• Unwelcome sexual advances;
• Requests for sexual favors; and
• Verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature, including the existence of a hostile work environment that encourages or allows for this type of behavior.

The following statistics from the EEOC highlight the extent of these issues while keeping in mind that most related incidents are under-reported:
• 88% of women have been harassed at some point.
• 79% of victims are female; 21% are male.
• 50% of transgender individuals report being harassed at work.
• 27% of those who are sexually harassed are harassed by a peer or co-worker.
• 17% of those who are sexually harassed are harassed by a supervisor
• 66.6% of those harassed are not aware of workplace reporting policies
• 50.4% are not aware of what department or person should be contacted at work regarding sexual harassment.

Many Factors Affect Sexual Harassment
When examining sexual harassment in the workplace one needs to consider many factors, including corporate culture, diversity, the age and attitudes of the workforce, and any incidents of sexual harassment in the company’s recent history. In addition, regardless if facilitators are outside consultants or internal staff, they need to clearly understand the motivation for the training and the organization’s written policy. One way to engage an audience in a training event is to begin with a warm up exercise of scenarios to discuss whether behavior is appropriate or not appropriate such as:
• Working late on a proposal and you give your exhausted colleague a shoulder rub.
• Your colleague looks great today, so you give her an appreciative whistle.
• You sympathetically ask your pregnant co-worker if her breasts hurt.
• You ask a co-worker to dance at the local watering hole.
• The deliveryman whistles at you and flirts relentlessly, even though you’ve said you’re not interested.
• You don’t support sexual harassment, but as a guy you don’t worry about it – it’s only for women.
• You work in an open office environment and call your wife to thank her for “action” the night before…with explicit details…
• You return from your honeymoon and, as a joke, you give your male co-workers a lewd bottle opener.

As can be seen from these various scenarios, there may be several opinions when evaluating if someone’s behavior is inappropriate. There is a continuum of behavior from young employees telling “raunchy” jokes in the breakroom to the Harvey Weinstein’s of the world using their power to intimidate and coerce young women.

Case Study
The following brief case study is a good example of identifying inappropriate behavior and then evaluating how to address the issue to help move towards a healthier work environment.
XYZ, a large construction company, has recently had multiple reports to Human Resources Department (HR). Two of them were about Joe, a long-time employee and master electrician who supervised 28 male plumbers and 3 female schedulers.

The complaints regarding Joe included constant and relentless vulgarity, suggestively brushing up against women and often “accidentally” groping them, calling a female employee a “prostitute” when she failed to deliver a schedule on time and other generally insensitive comments.

One female victim finally lodged a complaint to HR. Joe was stunned by the accusation and emphatically denied any wrong doing. He states that “he is simply a vulgar guy who has never asked for sex but simply is a guy’s guy!”

Joe’s behavior is so firmly ingrained that he appears to have little awareness of how he impacts others. The question becomes what type of training, education, communication, policy, and cultural change would help? Joe’s only concern during and after the trainings/coaching was fear of being sued. He never showed awareness or concern that his behavior was hurtful to others.

Clearly, in this instance, the presentation of legal facts had minimal impact on his long-held behavioral biases and beliefs. Although most sexual harassment trainings include legal implications, many trainers are learning that there needs to be a larger focus on behavioral change.

Shifting the Training Paradigm – Behavioral Model vs. Informational Model
An EEOC study in 2016 recommended that sexual harassment training be a part of a sustained and holistic effort that includes enhanced leadership participation and accountability. The key question is how to develop training programs that actually impact behavior, are sustainable, and prevent future incidents?

In these trainings, behavioral change should not only be focused on the perpetrator. It is also crucial to simultaneously provide support and education to bystanders. Bystander empowerment seeks to encourage both men and women to come forward to interrupt unacceptable workplace behavior – with a goal of changing workplace social attitudes.

Finally, it is important to be aware of any current or past victims in the training session, and use any and all opportunities to support them to come forward and regain their self-esteem while setting boundaries with co-workers.

In a report earlier this year, Mark Sangor emphasized the importance of tailoring training sessions to the particular organization’s workforce. When attempting to assess the organization consider its culture.

Quid Pro Quo Harassment
Is this a “buttoned-up” corporate setting where Quid Pro Quo Harassment is present? In this type of harassment, something is exchanged for something else, such as sexual favors for a promotion.
Hostile Environment Harassment

Or is this organization’s culture one that has a history and tolerance for Hostile Environment Harassment? This type of environment is one in which the following may occur: unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal sexual conduct is so unrelenting and severe that it meaningfully obstructs an employee’s work performance, or creates an atmosphere that is hostile, threatening or offensive.

Behavioral Sexual Harassment Training
In some organizations, sexual harassment can be so pervasive and ingrained in the culture that it requires a dedicated, well-coordinated, behaviorally based mitigation approach for change to begin. The following steps summarize a model of behavioral sexual harassment training that has evolved from over 35 years’ experience in the EAP field. These steps can act as a guide to developing and implementing a tailored service plan across a multitude of organizations.
• Remember the key to success is committed and engaged leadership who consistently demonstrate personal accountability and encourage complaint procedures that are trusted and accessible. You must understand if this exists in the specific client organization
• Training materials should consider principals of adult learning and multiple intelligences.
• Use an icebreaker activity that will reveal insights to diversity of experiences, unconscious biases, and the values of participants, but will still protect those who may have been victims.
• The training must incorporate the customary legal elements such as:
o Definition of sexual harassment and description of federal and state statutes prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace.
o Description of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the jurisdiction and role of the EEOC and any appropriate state agencies.
o In-depth discussion of types of conduct that constitute sexual harassment, that the victim may be a man or a woman and can involve same sex or opposite sex harassment.
o Statement that individuals who commit sexual harassment in the workplace may be subject to both civil and criminal penalties.
• Behavioral training must incorporate role-play, group case study exercises, and sensitivity training aimed at eliminating unconscious bias.
• An inventory of feelings should be included that includes all three perspectives: perpetrator, victim, and bystander.
• It is important to support and encourage empowerment for both victims and bystanders to feel comfortable in coming forward and reporting inappropriate behavior.
• Behavioral training cannot be a “once and out” approach but must be sustained. Consider ongoing group or individual coaching for perpetrators, victims, and bystanders who may feel traumatized
• Follow up with both the organization and the employees involved when possible as well as a built-in program to evaluate the effectiveness of your intervention.

This article advocates for a paradigm shift in harassment training programs to a primary focus on behavioral change. Adding behavioral components to training sessions appears to demonstrate a more favorable and sustainable response. Employee assistance professionals are known for their expertise in understanding workplace behavioral issues. Therefore, it seems appropriate that the EAP profession may be able to lead the way in this shift to a behavioral focus for more effective sexual harassment trainings.

Mary-Ellen Sposato Rogers, is the founder and principal of Excellere, a national training and consulting firm specializing in Employee Assistance Training, and Sexual Harassment mitigation consultation, strategy and training.

Patricia A. Herlihy, PhD, RN, is the CEO of Rocky Mountain Research and has been involved in various research projects regarding sexual assault issues in the military, on college campuses, and in the workplace.

For more information or a list of references used in this article, contact Mary-Ellen at or Pat at

Source: EA Report Brown Bagger, October 2018, part of the Employee Assistance Report, Volume 21, No. 10, October 2018.

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