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Time's Up On Sexual Harassment

Check-the-Box Exercises Don't Cut It Anymore


Thanks to the brave women and men who have broken their silence about sexual harassment and assault by the likes of Harvey Weinstein and more than 50 other prominent individuals who abused their power, employees are acutely aware that sexism and misogyny are endemic in both society and the workplace. It’s been heartbreaking to hear their stories, but their voices have provided invaluable fuel to the long-standing fight to end sexual discrimination, harassment and violence.

In his 32 years of working in human resources, David Lewis, president and CEO of OperationsInc, LifeSpeak expert and harassment prevention and awareness consultant, has never seen this level of attention focused on the issue. Also unprecedented is the number of HR and rewards professionals who are realizing that traditional approaches to preventing harassment in the workplace simply don’t work. The question remains, “What can we do to change workplace culture and achieve a zero-tolerance policy for employees?”

Why Conventional Training Methods Fail

“HR’s heart’s not in it. They’re doing what we call a ‘check-the-box’ exercise,” said Lewis, regarding why so many sexual harassment training programs fail.

He contends that these programs are doomed from the start, when HR’s primary goals are to shift culpability from the organization to individual, transgressing employees; secure insurance coverage to reduce corporate risk and liability; or maintain their own positive brand.

While these objectives are understandable, they don’t “add up to a cultural shift, behavior change or a commitment to have an environment that’s not hostile or offensive,” he said. “The companies that fail are approaching training as a necessary evil, not as a point that drives their values or addresses a culture that they want.”

The Root of the Problem

Lewis, along with LifeSpeak expert Keith Edwards, Ph.D., speaker and educator on sexual violence prevention, men’s identity and social justice, has developed videos designed to deal with issues of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. They agree that the first and most powerful way to prevent sexual misconduct is to have the right workplace culture.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about maximizing employee engagement and experience by designing and delivering a culture that supports, embraces and empowers people to do their best work. The focus has been on enhancing benefits packages and creating more comfortable physical environments, but it’s imperative that the movement toward a healthier workplace culture includes providing employees a safe place to work — free from sexual discrimination, harassment and violence.

To enact this kind of cultural change, Edwards advocates shifting from a reactive approach to a proactive one. Human resources shouldn’t wait for employees to get hurt; there should be preventive measures in place to discourage aggressors before they attack. The current strategy behind awareness and prevention training is a Band-Aid solution. Human resources has been dealing with the symptoms of sexual harassment instead of tackling the underlying problem directly, Lewis said.

“What they fail to see is that the root cause of whatever they’re trying to address is not that people don’t understand right versus wrong ... it’s that the culture of the business is one that fosters that type of inappropriate behavior,” he said. To make matters worse, victims historically have been treated poorly when they have come forward.

“When individuals have reported sexual harassment and violence in the workplace, they have often been blamed — not believed — and belittled and dehumanized by those they report it to at work, at school and in their relationships,” Edwards said. “Being proactive means prevention. Prevention means identifying who perpetrates sexual harassment and violence and why so that we can reach them before it happens. It means teaching all of us how not to engage in this behavior, to challenge the behavior of our peers, and to speak up at the roots of this violence in our culture.”

Initiating True Change

So, how do you go about changing your workplace culture to discourage sexual harassment and abuse? Lewis suggested starting by assessing the current culture. How does your company operate? Which behaviors are encouraged, and which are punished? How do male and female employees talk to and collaborate with each other?

The answers to these kinds of questions indicate where improvements are required. You may indeed discover that your workplace culture already promotes healthy and respectful behavior, and that you instead need to focus on a few key individuals. However, don’t overlook the fact that all employees take behavioral cues from their managers. Culture starts at the top, so your managers must be diligent in demonstrating the behaviors they wish to see in their staff. For this reason, it’s still necessary to hold awareness and prevention trainings, and to mandate that leadership attend and participate along with all other employees. No one within the organization can be exempt.

Edwards pointed out that a cultural shift isn’t just about learning what’s appropriate, but also unlearning toxic behaviors and attitudes that we’ve acquired through decades of socialization.

“Some perpetrators know ... sexual harassment is awful, but are behaving in ways that they think are acceptable based on what they have learned throughout their lives,” he said. “We need to help these folks unlearn the societal messages they have been learning their whole lives.”


It’s also important to be cognizant of the ways in which certain aspects of your culture might complicate efforts to prevent sexual misconduct. For example, Lewis pointed out that organizations that are more social and relaxed in nature can sometimes blur the line between what’s personal and what’s professional. While he believes perks such as ping-pong tables, flexible hours and on site alcohol can make people more creative and foster teamwork and positivity, it also can be a slippery slope when employees find themselves in situations that seem more social than professional. The key to avoiding these problematic encounters, he advised, is to keep a balance.

“On an ongoing basis, you have to look at your objectives collectively and keep them in check so that they don’t conflict and butt up against one another,” he said. If your culture is more contemporary and laid-back, especially when it comes to drinking and partying as a team, you must figure out a way of reconciling that philosophy with your values of employee safety and healthy behavior.

Overcoming Pushback and Ensuring Continuity

Some employees might find mandatory sexual harassment training unnecessary, time-consuming, awkward or even offensive. They may feel insulted by the idea of being taught how to behave, especially if they have witnessed bad behavior from leadership. There’s no doubt talking about sexual abuse is distressing for most of us, and it’s OK to openly recognize that.

“It may be uncomfortable because of the language, the way they were taught — or not — about these issues previously, or their own experiences as survivors or perpetrators,” Edwards suggested. For these reasons, you must communicate that the training isn’t meant to single out or upset anyone; it’s strictly about prevention, safety and education.

On that note, the educational methods and content used by most organizations need to be reformed. It has become painfully obvious that showing a two-hour video on sexual harassment once a year doesn’t curb sexual misconduct in the workplace. There’s nothing engaging about sitting in front of a long video, especially if it’s clichéd, outdated and melodramatic in the way many training courses are.

Lewis suggested avoiding lectures, instead combining various media and techniques to make the content more interesting, engaging and memorable. Use worksheets, break out sessions and other interactive activities to encourage discussion and prompt employees to think critically. Edwards emphasized that “there is no single approach that will work for every person. We all learn in different ways, so our approach to educating must also use multiple approaches.”

Lastly, don’t wait an entire year or until an incident of sexual harassment has occurred to provide training. Employee behavior should be constantly monitored, and any issues should be handled immediately. Ensure trainings are ongoing and consistent, and communicate information in a variety of ways throughout the workplace to keep it top of mind. Eye-catching signage and blurbs in company newsletters are just two of many ways to do this. Forward- thinking HR departments are offering 24/7 access to resources such as online videos, podcasts and tips sheets about sexual harassment that employees can anonymously turn to whenever and wherever they need. Knowing they have round-the-clock support will give employees peace of mind and help them feel safer.

Sometimes, Someone Just Has to Go


In light of current events, it’s hard to imagine that leadership would be reluctant to implement a more robust training program as described here to combat sexual harassment, but you may encounter resistance based on budget and other limited resources. Lewis said it’s important to stick to your values, ask yourself if you’re comfortable working in an environment where human resources and employee safety are not respected and, ultimately, leave the organization if need be. Leadership that has no interest in protecting its employees has a serious integrity issue on its hands, and as a rewards professional you should not compromise your morals by continuing to work there. Similarly, if an employee is adamant about skipping trainings or continues behaving inappropriately despite being reprimanded, don’t hesitate to document behavior and show him or her the door. That toxicity will only leach further into the workplace, rendering it uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst.

It’s Just the Beginning

Despite the progress being made, we still have a long way to go before sexual discrimination, harassment and violence are completely stricken from all workplaces. That’s why it’s crucial that HR and rewards professionals continue educating their staffs — even if it starts to feel redundant. The roots of sexism and misogyny run unfathomably deep. By changing behavior and mindsets in your workplace, you can help your employees become more respectful, empathetic and attentive citizens.