All too often, companies find themselves grappling with what to do after a sexual harassment complaint or even a lawsuit. Less often do they invest their time and energy into developing a comprehensive training program that helps prevent sexual harassment from occurring in the first place — and teaches employees and leaders how to actively respond when it does.

Learning and development (L&D) is imperative in ensuring sexual harassment prevention training programs are effective. Creating a comprehensive program that incorporates topics like bystander intervention, civility, inclusion and unconscious bias is critical in ensuring all members of an organization know not only the state and federal laws regarding what constitutes sexual harassment but also how to respond when any member of the organization engages in harassing or discriminatory behavior.

Making Compliance Training Actionable

With the immense number of women, and men, who have come forward with reports of sexual harassment and retaliation in the workplace since the start of the #MeToo movement, it is clear that past sexual harassment prevention training has been widely unsuccessful in terms of prevention.

Andrew Rawson, chief learning officer and co-founder at Traliant, says, “One of the changes the #MeToo movement caused was the recognition that simply teaching people about the law, which has been the traditional model for sexual harassment training, doesn’t really work.” Thus, he explains, L&D leaders must take a behavioral approach to sexual harassment prevention training to ensure it’s both effective and actionable. One way to do so is by incorporating the topic of bystander intervention into training programs.

According to Harvard’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response, an active bystander “is someone who acknowledges a problematic situation and chooses how to respond. They must decide if they will speak up, step in, or offer assistance.” Integrating bystander intervention tactics into sexual harassment prevention training programs will help ensure employees know specific steps to take to stop sexual harassment in its tracks and how to prevent it from escalating into a widespread cultural problem.

“People frequently witness bad behavior, and training people on how to come forward has been a very important part of reducing the incidence of sexual harassment,” Rawson notes.

From interactive videos to role-play, there are numerous ways training professionals can address bystander intervention so that learners know not just what harassment is but what they can do about it at their specific organization.

Comprehensive sexual harassment prevention training should also include continuous learning elements so that learners continue to think about ways to combat what has proven to be a pervasive workplace issue. Traliant, for example, uses short videos called “sparks” to accompany its sexual harassment training. Each video addresses a common workplace issue, from how to intervene as a bystander (“We’re In This Together”) to how to appropriately ask a co-worker out on a date (“Only Ask Once”).

With the incorporation of continuous learning elements on topics such as bystander intervention, L&D professionals can ensure sexual harassment prevention training is not just informative; it’s actionable.

Cultivating Civility in the Workplace

According to RiseSmart, “Civility usually is demonstrated through manners, courtesy, politeness, and a general awareness of the rights, wishes, concerns, and feelings of others.” Sheila Krejci, author, trainer and founder of Sheila K. Consulting, approaches sexual harassment prevention training with this concept in mind.

“Any type of harassment prevention training … is really about cultivating respect, cultivating civility, cultivating a culture of curiosity about everything — ethnic customs, spiritual beliefs, generational values [and] even working styles.” Krejci says. “There’s often a real difference between the intent of our words and actions and the impact that those words or actions have on someone else. When offered in the spirit of curiosity and learning more about another in a genuinely positive exchange, true respect, professionalism and civility become a cultural reality and, eventually, the cultural norm.”

By crafting a culture of civility on an organizational level, employees and leaders will come to expect a higher level of respect from those around them — because they show others that same level of respect on a daily basis.

“It needs to be in a policy, in some sort of a leadership statement of ‘what we expect,’ letting employees know from the first day they’re interviewed and hired that ‘this is the type of environment we have, [and] this is the type of culture we want to embrace,” says Patty Kotze, senior executive trainer at Compliance Training Group.

Ultimately, an organizational culture of civility acts as a powerful force against harassment of any kind.

It Starts at the Top

Leaders set the precedent for the type of behavior expected, and tolerated, at their organizations. “One indicator of whether an employee will behave ethically in any given situation is whether they believe their management will behave ethically,” Rawson notes. “When management sends the right message, in both word and deed, it does influence how people behave — it is still very much of a ‘herd’ mentality.”

To help prevent harassment in the workplace, leaders should work to combat their own unconscious biases (because everyone has them) to ensure they are consistently acting in a way that is both civil and inclusive. Unconscious bias training is one way to help leaders recognize and combat any biases they may not know they have. Once leaders recognize where their knowledge gaps lie in terms of diversity and inclusion, they can work to close them through additional training or coaching.

In addition to practicing what they preach, leaders must take sexual harassment prevention training seriously. Too often, leaders take a “check-the-box” approach to compliance training, which is why many harassment prevention programs have proven unsuccessful in the past.

For a sexual harassment training program to be successful, leaders should consistently reiterate its importance to engage learners and ensure they take the training seriously. “It really does come from the top, and the top really does need to put out the message that this training is important,” Kotze says.

Organizations should also offer training specially designed for leaders, so that they know how to respond when a sexual harassment complaint arises. Krejci says that after a complaint arises, “Every leader, whether the direct supervisor of the reporter or not, should respond consistently, as they are the face of the organization. They need to show confidence that the organization takes the harassment complaint seriously and is committed to ensuring a workplace free of any kind of harassing behavior.”

Organizational Impact

By taking a comprehensive approach to sexual harassment prevention training — focusing on bystander intervention, continuous learning, civility, mitigating bias and increasing leadership support — L&D professionals can help organizations better prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace. In doing so, they will help cultivate a respectful and inclusive culture that employees will be proud to be a part of.

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