How to Make Sure Your Sexual Harassment Training Program Isn’t a Miserable Disaster


Sexual harassment training doesn’t have the best reputation in the workplace. If you’ve ever seen The Office, I think they do an excellent job of demonstrating how harassment and discrimination training can go horribly wrong. In fact, an interesting fact about The Office episode I just mentioned is that it’s based on a sexual harassment seminar that the NBC cast had to attend before filming began. In the episode, Michael (the often misguided boss and main character) puts his team through mandatory sexual harassment training at the insistence of Corporate. He outwardly mocks the training videos, and improvises his own training scenarios and props. If the training the cast attended was anything like the episode, it must have been a horrendous disaster.  And yet training remains so important. Both harassment and discrimination are areas that offer a lot of gray space in terms of how, where, and when things can go sour.

The thing that makes sexual harassment so devilishly difficult to fight is that for every case where the harassment was cut and dried, black and white, definitely sexual harassment, there are ten that are much more subtle. That makes it all the more difficult to distinguish not just for victims, but for other employees who may be watching these situations from the outside.

Your employees may be placed in situations where the distinction isn’t clear. And even the best business ethics training or sexual harassment training can’t prepare them for every single scenario. However, you can provide them with the basics. I also think it helps to clarify what I think the point of sexual harassment training is. The point isn’t to take bad people and make them good people via the magical portal of 4-minute video snippets. I think that’s why sexual harassment training gets such a bad rap to begin with; when it’s poorly done, the real purpose isn’t clear.

The Purpose of Sexual Harassment Training

The true purpose of sexual harassment training is to give all of your employees some clarity as to how to define sexual harassment in the workplace, give them the tools to report incidents, and empower them to act on what they know and see. The goal is to make your employees your allies in fighting the issues that every workplace faces at one time or another, however unpleasant. It’s a lot easier to fight that battle with every employee as an ally, acting as ears and eyes on the ground, rather than going in blind.

Sexual harassment and AB 1825 training can be huge opportunities for your HR and Compliance teams. By clearly presenting the purpose (we are all in this together, and you, the employee, are our eyes and ears), and educational information in a modern, interactive, engaging way; you can develop a sincere connection with employees that goes well beyond incident reporting.

The 4 Pillars of an Excellent Sexual Harassment Training Program

1. A Multimedia Format That Features Illustrations Rather Than Actors

Here’s what I remember about the educational video we watched in driver’s education: the hair. Also, the clothes were so 1983 it hurt to watch. And unless there’s some sort of correlation between bad perms and horrific car accidents, I’m pretty sure I missed the point.

Granted, keeping a 16 year-old engaged in a driver’s ed course is somewhat different than keeping a professional engaged in their business ethics training or Code of Conduct courses. Or is it? I can guarantee that it’s not the highlight of their day (I know, you’re shocked.) So why not try to make the material as easy to digest as possible?

What’s the benefit of using illustrations rather than actors? We found that illustrations create a healthy level of distance between the viewer and the content. Our brains view illustrations differently, and view them as more abstract scenes than live-action footage. (Click here to read more about the study.) This is good news for a number of reasons:

  • Focus: Your employees will be focused on the video content rather than the hair or clothes of the cartoon.
  • Cost: The expense of creating videos in multiple locations with an appropriately diverse cast of actors is prohibitive. When using illustrated materials, however, scenarios, outfits, and settings can be easily edited to accurately reflect your workplace, allowing you to produce more training, better suited to your organization, at a lower cost.
  • Customization: As I mentioned above, illustrations are much easier to customize than live actors and locations. This allows you to create culturally appropriate, branded trainings that fit with your company culture.
  • Relevancy: It’s much easier to update content regularly and keep it fresh when it’s not cost prohibitive. Minor tweaks in scenarios and characters keep your content from looking dated or out-of-sync with your brand initiatives, with very additional little expense or time investment.

2. Supervisor-Specific Training

We’ve talked a lot about employee training, but what about supervisor training? Imagine if your employee has a very comfortable relationship with his supervisor, so rather than calling a whistleblower hotline, he wants to discuss the situation with his supervisor. Now imagine the supervisor has no idea how to respond appropriately to the report, what to do with that information, or what to do next. This has the potential to be a reporting nightmare, which is why some states, have instituted mandatory supervisor training (such as AB1825 training in California) every two years.

Even if you’re not based in California, consider adding specific-supervisor training to eliminate the risk of potential scenarios like the one I laid out above. While it may not be a part of your state’s laws, it’s certainly still a part of following GRC best practices.

3. Branded to Your Company

Your training should match the culture, tone, and voice of your company. If you’re shelling out for a custom training solution, your provider should make sure it fits. (Check out this completely custom business ethics training system we built for Yahoo.) This includes the ages, ethnicities, and locations of characters, as well as the scenarios they encounter, and how the training is advertised and delivered. Look for a provider or program that offers the supporting materials that you need to make your training program a success.

4. Culturally Relevant

A company based in California that employs 60 millenials is going to have a different culture than one with 40,000 employees of all ages scattered all over the globe. Is the 22 year old in California receiving the same training as the 58 year old in Singapore? If so, we have a problem, and it’s bigger than just language. Your Singapore office likely experiences different scenarios that require different handling than your US-based offices, in an entirely different cultural context.

One of the most interesting, best presented courses I’ve ever attended was a class on transcreation taught by Nataly Kelly, the Vice President of Marketing at Smartling. She presented a much more eloquent argument than I’m about to, but in a nutshell: the tone of training must be appropriate to the culture, and pure translation doesn’t always achieve that. The visuals need to match also, which goes beyond just presenting a  variety of characters, but also thinking about how different cultures interpret content visually. For example, if you look at the websites of companies that do transcreation effectively, the messaging and visual presentation are different from country to country, often quite subtly, but in some cases quite drastically. I’ll leave you with a series of links to the Australian, German, American, British, Middle Eastern and North African, and Chinese Starbucks sites.

As you can see, effective sexual harassment training requires thought and planning to avoid a poor execution. Working with a provider that has an extensive, modern, consistently updated course library that includes supervisor-specific training and customization options that allow for branding as well as transcreation for cultural sensitivity will set you up for success.



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