Sexual Harassment Training in the #MeToo Era

29 October 2018 Labor & Employment Law Perspectives Blog
Author(s): Carrie Hoffman

Over the last few months, we have been bombarded constantly with various people across society discussing sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement. Recent news events have led to spirited and sometimes disruptive discussions within the work environment as people take sides in the ongoing political and societal debate. 

However, the current environment also provides human resources professionals with an intriguing opportunity. It is a good time to rethink employers’ anti-harassment employment policies, as well as how to conduct training on harassment and opportunities for reporting. 

The dramatic return of sexual harassment cases to the forefront of pop culture and employment litigation should serve as a wake-up call to human resource professionals to reconsider whether they are relying on outdated and awkward harassment training videos or other boilerplate programs. Are these impersonal training modules engaging employees and accurately presenting company expectations? Or, if the employer is currently conducting more interactive types of training, should the examples and issues presented be updated? Are the employer’s expectations set forth in clear and simple terms within the culture of the specific workplace? Are employees provided information on how and where to raise concerns if they arise?

Now is the time to consider why the employer is providing the training and what goals the employer is attempting to achieve. Is the goal simply to check the box that training was provided? Or is the goal to educate employees on professional conduct expectations along with complaint avenues if the need arises? Training can be cumbersome and expensive if the employer does not have the expertise to present it with its own staff. And, there is surprisingly little research on issues such as training’s efficacy in raising awareness and eradicating harassment in the workplace. 

Despite that, we are generally aware that employees who are engaged in the training module will take away more details and retain important information. Therefore, those poor-production training videos that may have been purchased on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1986 recognition of sexual harassment as a violation of Title VII should likely be replaced.

Employers should consider the following concepts when implementing anti-harassment training to engage and address these challenging times:

  1. Put those outdated, impersonal videos in the recycle bin and focus on live training (even if it is via video conference for employers that have employees across the country). These interactive training sessions are more likely to impress upon employees that the company takes these matters seriously and will lead to a more open dialogue. Moreover, it gives employees the names/faces to whom they can make complaints if they arise and/or ask questions. And, training should be regularly updated to avoid becoming stale and to ensure that employees will remain engaged. A potential exception would be a short video message (if in-person is not feasible) from the CEO to employees to demonstrate the company’s commitment.
  2. Training should be practical. It should not recite legalese and should instead explain to employees what types of behavior violate the company’s policies and will subject them to disciplinary action. The training should be tailored to the employer’s workforce (e.g., office based, factory, retail, etc.).
  3. Longer is not necessarily better. Generally, training should not be longer than an hour.  However, keep in mind that California and Connecticut require that training last at least two hours.
  4. Training should separate hourly (non-managerial) employees and managers. While the information about what constitutes a violation of policy (and is considered harassment) is the same, managers need to understand that they have increased obligations under the law when they observe harassment behavior and/or receive a harassment complaint. Moreover, hourly employees may have issues to raise that they would not in front of managers. But, executives and high level executives need to show commitment by attending the sessions.
  5. Include training that discusses and provides examples of appropriate behavior. This means the training should include not just behavior to avoid but also interacting respectfully both in-person and by email. Consider discussions on individual differences (diversity and culture) and inclusion.
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