We Need to Change the Culture Around Sexual Harassment Training

A few weeks ago I was lamenting with a friend about the reports of sexual harassment being applied to Louis CK. It’s always disappointing to hear about behavior like this, but it stings a bit more when it’s applied to someone you admired and respected, which was the case for both of us when it came to Louis CK. While it was disappointing, I remember having a strange thought: There was a part of me that was actually hoping that more allegations would arise against other big names.

Don’t get me wrong. These stories are horrific and in many ways represent the worst of human behavior. At the same time, I was hoping that these high-profile reports (and the recent #MeToo movement) would empower more people to come forward with their stories. As more big names fell from grace, perhaps we would be forced to finally deal with this problem.

Two weeks later, and we’ve added John Lasseter, Jeffrey Tambor, Brett Ratner, Jeremy Piven, Garrison Keillor, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer and more to the list.

If ever we were being forced to deal with this problem as a culture, now would be the time. It’s going to force us to give ourselves an honest look in the mirror and ask ourselves some very hard questions. For those of us that work in the training and development community, it starts with a difficult truth.

Training Departments are Part of the Sexual Harassment Problem

Education can be a powerful, transformational, experience that makes us see and understand the world in new ways, providing us with skills and knowledge to improve ourselves, our fellow humans, and our society. It’s truly what makes me so passionate about the work that we do. As learning and development professionals we have the privilege and responsibility to provide people with opportunities to open new doors and discover what’s possible.

And on the complete opposite end of the spectrum exists the world of Sexual Harassment Training.

I could talk about how sexual harassment training is often the worst example of training that exists, but honestly, I see the poor quality of training that exists in this space as more a symptom of the problem then the problem itself. The real problem, and the reason I feel we in L&D need to own some of the challenges that exist in our culture, is that sexual harassment training does little to nothing to deter sexual harassment in the workplace. Many of us know this in our hearts, but we do it anyway because it’s mandated by our compliance department.

The Real Purpose of Sexual Harassment Training

I remember having a conversation with the new Compliance Director of a previous organization I worked in. He wanted to discuss our annual sexual harassment training program. I shared with him what we had in place, and he asked a few questions, such as:

  • Does this training meet the regulatory requirements?
  • How is this training tracked to ensure everyone completes it?
  • Can we quickly and easily report on who has taken the training upon a request from HR?

You know what question was not asked, and is sadly a question I have never been asked in my career? “How effective is this training at preventing sexual harassment?” And there’s a completely logical yet infuriating reason that question isn’t being asked: Sexual Harassment training isn’t really about preventing sexual harassment; it’s about reducing the legal exposure an organization has in sexual harassment lawsuits.

Where Sexual Harassment Training Succeeds

It’s easy to look at the current avalanche of sexual harassment and assault claims and conclude that sexual harassment training doesn’t work. That would be an incorrect assumption. The current state of sexual harassment training is actually very effective at achieving its primary goal of compliance with current laws. Those laws (which can vary by state) around sexual harassment training that takes place. That’s the primary goal of many sexual harassment training programs: to be compliant with the law. By that definition, many of today’s sexual harassment training programs could be identified as successful.

Where Sexual Harassment Training Fails

The primary place where sexual harassment training fails rests on the metrics we use to determine it’s success: Compliance. However, there are many other ways in which the training can fail. One that has always bothered me is that sexual harassment training is being used to address something that isn’t really a training issue.

Don’t get me wrong; training departments have n opportunity and responsibility to contribute to finally solving this problem. But if you think about the content of the average sexual harassment course, you’ll find content that covers things like:

  • What sexual harassment is
  • The laws governing sexual harassment
  • Examples of sexual harassment
  • How to report sexual harassment

In short, most sexual harassment training is designed to help people understand sexual harassment, and “understanding” isn’t the problem. Do you really believe that any of the people involved in the recent allegations of misconduct did so because of a lack of awareness of what sexual harassment is or how it applies to their work?

Neither do I. Training is never going to “fix” a behavior problem that is unrelated to developing skills and/or understanding.

How Much of This is L&D’s Fault?

My original heading for this section was “What is L&D’s Role in All of This?”, but I decided to make it a little sharper because I do believe our industry has some responsibility in perpetuating the culture that exists around sexual harassment.

That might seem harsh, but I also think it’s accurate. We’re responsible for the sexual harassment training that exists, whether we create it, deliver it, or buy it. We’re the ones that often influence or drive the decision that says “This is how we’ll handle sexual harassment training”. At the same time I, like you, have been in environments where I alone did not make the decision, and my ability to influence a decision has been limited by many factors including culture, legacy, and budget.

But I, like too many others, have also fallen victim to being complacent because of the status quo. This is what “Sexual Harassment Training” has been: a required course that we need to make sure gets done as quickly as possible. That’s what the culture of the training was, and that’s what we delivered as an industry.

That training did little to nothing to change the culture around sexual harassment. We need to own that if only to bear the weight and responsibility of what we need to do next.

Changing the Sexual Harassment Training Conversation

I firmly believe that within every problem there is also opportunity, and the current crisis around sexual harassment is no different.

Regardless of how aware you were of how widespread the sexual harassment problem is in this country, we are all now more aware than ever of the scale of the problem. That awareness has opened an important dialog about the problem in our culture, and that dialog creates an opportunity to change the conversation around sexual harassment training in our organizations. We need to seize this opportunity NOW, as there’s unfortunately no guarantee that the door will remain open.

While there are lots of options our industry can and should explore to improve things, I think fixing the problem consists of two important components:

Keep Existing Sexual Harassment Training Programs in Place

Based on everything you’ve read so far you may think that headline is a typo. It’s not.

Today’s Sexual Harassment Training Programs are complex beasts. I’m not talking about the training programs themselves; they’re often pretty basic. I’m referring to the machine that the training programs are a part of, a machine that involves compliance officers, and industry regulations, and federal laws, all of which put requirements in place that have their hands in the course ultimately delivered. There are many important stakeholders whose definition of “risk” is being minimized by the existing training paradigm.

Whether or not you agree with that definition of “risk” is irrelevant; it exists. We are not going to get system around sexual harassment training to change anytime soon, and no stakeholder is going to listen to you if your starting place is one of a change that reopens the door to not being in compliance with regulatory training requirements.

So don’t change your existing sexual harassment training. Deliver it as you always have, if not better. Keep those stakeholders happy, because that will leave them open to what we really need to do to support meaningful change.

Create Safety-Focused Training and Resources

By continuing to provide sexual harassment training that protects the organization, it will hopefully be easier for you to create additional training and resources that focus on how we can better protect our fellow employees. We need to shift away from explaining what sexual harassment is and towards creating a culture of respect. We need to shift away from explaining how to avoid situations in which harassment can be questioned and towards ways to encourage trust. We also need to help people better understand the relationships that exist between harassment and power, in an effort to eliminate the blind spots that seem to exist for both victims and perpetrators in that space.

Most importantly, we need to shift away from telling people what not to do and provide more resources on what people should be doing, both in terms of creating a safer everyday environment for all and for creating safety to have your voice be heard when lines are crossed.

Let’s Solve this Problem

That might all sound great, but it’s not going to be easy. Since we’ve never prioritized this goal there’s not a huge number of resources and proven practices that organizations can leverage. Therein lies an opportunity for the training and development industry. We have the ability to contribute ideas and resources that can help support a meaningful long-term change in our country. We are an industry of creative people who share a desire to do work that makes people’s lives better. We are an industry that can help drive meaningful change in this area, and the moment to do so is now.

Let’s get started.