- Workplace sexual harassment continues to be a widespread problem, yet 36% of organizations do not offer anti-harassment training.
- Following meaningful anti-harassment training, 75% of women and 85% of men reported feeling safer at work.
- Some organizations remain at risk for sexual harassment and require a cultural shift alongside training.
Despite five years of the #MeToo movement highlighting the ubiquitous presence of sexual abuse and harassment, sexual harassment in the workplace is still too prevalent — and a surprising percentage of companies aren’t making an effort to fix it.
Currently, 36% of organizations do not provide any form of anti-harassment training, despite all the evidence that sexual harassment can seriously harm a company’s reputation (let alone the harm it causes to the victims).
Sexual harassment at work can include bullying, coercion and unwanted physical contact. Because sexual harassment is so often rooted in a power imbalance between the victim and the perpetrator, it can be extremely damaging.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines workplace harassment as “unwelcome or offensive conduct that is detrimental to an employer’s work performance, professional advancement, and/or mental health.”
Sexual harassment in the workplace can lead to poor mental and physical health (including anxiety and depression), severely curtail a person’s ability to focus on the job and create both real and perceived safety concerns for those affected. It has proven to diminish job satisfaction, reduce levels of commitment and can result in employees withdrawing (psychologically and physically) from the workplace. Sexual harassment is clearly harmful to wellbeing and productivity, and when unchecked, it can create a toxic environment that no employee wants to work within.
The continuing scourge of sexual harassment at work
A 2019 report on sexual harassment in the state of California revealed that 36% of women and 28% of men had reported incidences of sexual harassment in the workplace. Men are more likely to be the perpetrators of sexual harassment (34% of men compared to 20% of women), while LGBTQ+ individuals report more incidences of sexual harassment than any other demographic group. According to the 2019 report, these statistics are only based on official data and therefor do not reflect a large number of unreported cases of sexual harassment in the workplace.
As of 2021, only 17 U.S. states had a mandate requiring employers to provide sexual harassment training. Shockingly, only 6 of these 17 states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine and New York) have applied this mandate to both public and private sector organizations. The other 11 states only require training for public sector bodies.
According to the Society for Organizational and Industrial Psychology, some victims have reported incidences of sexual harassment only to find that they are met with an ineffective or even hostile response from management.
In accordance with this finding, the 2019 report on sexual harassment found that less than 10% of women and men reported their experience to an employer or filed a formal complaint. This is a worryingly low rate of reporting — could it be one of the reasons why some organizations do not feel compelled to provide anti-harassment training?
What needs to change and why some organizations are more “at risk”
A recent Allwork.Space article revealed that online sexual misconduct has risen sharply, with one in four people experiencing sexual harassment while working remotely. This finding was also highlighted in the 2021 State of Sexual Harassment Training report, which identified some prominent differences between men and women concerning sexual harassment.
The report revealed that more men than women had identified and reported online harassment (40% of men compared to 17% of women). It also found that more men than women reported taking legal action when they experienced harassment (but were less likely to do so when the perpetrator was someone more senior). Despite the different approaches taken by men and women, the report makes clear that anti-harassment training is fundamental to all employees recognizing and reporting sexual harassment within an organization.
“When responses to the most basic of questions, such as, what constitutes sexual harassment, vary so much between men and women in the workplace, there is still a long way to go in educating employees. And, with over 75% of women and 85% of men reporting they feel safer at work after having received training, it’s clear that sexual harassment training needs to be a part of every company’s yearly curriculum,” according to Christina Gialleli, Director of People Ops at Epignosis, the parent company of TalentLMS.
There are many types of anti-harassment training, which vary in quality and effectiveness. This means that not all training provides long-term, positive outcomes for an organization. Employers must research the types of training available to make the most appropriate choice for their team; if not, some agencies can assist in sourcing and providing quality training.
All organizations can benefit from anti-harassment training, but some companies might need more intensive training because they are more at risk of enabling a culture where sexual harassment can persist. The Society for Organizational and Industrial Psychology identified some of these risk factors in a 2018 white paper on addressing sexual harassment in the workplace.
According to this white paper, the following factors make an organization more at risk of creating a climate where sexual harassment can thrive:
- Organizations with high-status differential (where power is more concentrated in the top levels)
- Those within traditionally male-dominated industries (with large numbers of male employees)
- Organizations that encourage and expect masculine behaviors from their employees
The white paper also indicates that “at risk” organizations are more likely to be those with few (if any) sanctions for perpetrators, and where employees are not confident of receiving a meaningful response to their complaints.
If an organization does not respond appropriately to reports of harassment, the fallout can be tremendous. Without a meaningful response, victims of sexual harassment can re-experience the trauma and suffer from long-term post-traumatic stress disorder.
A lack of appropriate response can also cost the company financially (costs including settlement, damages, loss of productivity, etc.). According to HR consultants ERC, a harassment claim settled out of court can cost a company between $75,000 and $125,000 — and that’s just the legal fees.
What does effective anti-harassment training look like?
Employers should see the provision of high-value anti-harassment training programs as an investment in their organization’s people and future. The most effective training should prevent sexual harassment from occurring at all. To this end, it is essential that workers at every level of the organization receive anti-harassment training, and that new employees receive this training as part of the onboarding process.
The aim is for organizations to take a preventative approach, rather than reacting after incidences of harassment have already occurred. The white paper identified several key features of an effective training strategy:
- Identification of risk factors (as outlined above) and prevalent attitudes before training commences (via questionnaires and other appropriate feedback mechanisms).
- Planning and implementation of steps to eliminate any of the risk factors identified (this could entail a significant cultural shift).
- Clear definitions and examples of all behaviors that constitute sexual harassment (this will help to clarify any gray areas or misconceptions).
- Incorporation of emotional intelligence training for management into the program. This will enable leaders to deal more sensitively and appropriately with incidences of sexual harassment, should they arise.
After an organization has identified its cultural risks, this practice must not be confined to a vacuum. According to the white paper, testing and measuring the organizational climate regularly can help to create a culture in which sexual harassment is seen as an anathema. Organizational psychologists have several tools that they use for assessing whether a company’s climate is conducive to sexual harassment (or how effective an anti-harassment training program has been) — such as The Psychological Climate for Sexual Harassment Questionnaire.
What can happen when organizations get it right?
An organization that can identify issues within its culture, be open (ready for a cultural shift) and flexible to training should reap the benefits that arise from an environment where all employees feel safe and welcome. Organizations require relevant and accessible policies and procedures that lead to meaningful action and hold all perpetrators of sexual harassment fully accountable.
The EEOC states that it is insufficient to simply possess an anti-harassment policy, and that leadership and accountability are crucial elements of all effective anti-harassment training programs. Employees will thrive in an organization where they feel acknowledged, supported and encouraged to report any incidence of sexual harassment.
In these organizations, employees know their rights and are not afraid to state them. These employees feel valued, better informed and will be more likely to remain in their jobs. The organization benefits from having a more productive and committed workforce — proving that there is also a business case for anti-harassment training.
The 2021 State of Sexual Harassment Training report has identified several of these benefits as a percentage of employees who undertook anti-harassment training.
New approaches to anti-harassment training are needed
According to the EEOC, there needs to be a sizable change to anti-harassment training because too many organizations rely on outdated, inefficient programs that do not account for new and varied approaches to work (hybrid, remote and so on). Training needs to be on a continuum of continuous improvement within an organization — not a one-off exercise.
Training needs to be proactive and preventative. It should also focus on empowering and educating employees (at all levels) to promote anti-harassment values so that they become ingrained into the culture. New organizational psychology approaches need to be embedded into anti-harassment training (as recommended by the EEOC) — such as bystander intervention training which gives coworkers the tools to support their colleagues.
It is possible that in the future AI (artificial intelligence) will be able to identify all forms of sexual harassment and bullying. There are currently programs available to identify online harassment (such as the #MeToo bots), but there are questions about their effectiveness. The growing demand for this type of software is being addressed by software developers and scientists racing to produce the most advanced technology.
This could be a game-changer for detecting harassment — but hopefully, many organizations will experience a cultural shift led by humans, as this is the only way to affect long-lasting significant change.