By Charlotte Jensen

As the #metoo movement takes on a life of its own, many organizations who were once absolutely certain #notme are now wondering #isitme? Human Resources professionals are scrambling to ensure policies and training are up to date.  But, is that really the issue…or the answer?

In 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released a study that showed sexual harassment training is generally ineffective.  Why?  Among other things, research shows that such trainings do not have much impact on changing employees’ attitudes.

Wait. What?  Anti-harassment training isn’t about checking the compliance box?  It’s supposed to change attitudes?

As long as there are laws and attorneys, there will always be a need for compliance training.  And to be fair, training on the fundamentals is critical.  Employees and managers alike need to be familiar with the law; they need to understand what harassment is – and what it isn’t; they need to know the company’s complaint procedures and subsequent investigation process; and they need to be clear about retaliation.

Traditional training accomplishes this.  The problem is, that’s where traditional training often stops.  Symptoms are reviewed, but underlying causes are ignored.

This is where the #metoo movement and wave of public firings can create a meaningful shift in how we look at harassment in the workplace.  As important as compliance training is, it usually doesn’t impact employee attitudes, and it doesn’t look at the organization’s culture to see how that might be creating an environment that lends itself to harassment.  It’s uncomfortable to ask this of ourselves, but the volume of people coming forward to share their stories leaves us no choice.

I recently sat with a group of senior level managers to discuss their harassment concerns in their office.  They were not looking for formal training per se; they just wanted to talk and ask questions specific to their workplace.  Yes, we covered the basics so they would have a solid foundation, but we largely let their questions and examples dictate the flow.  This meant creating an environment where open discussion felt “safe” and ensuring the managers understood we weren’t there to judge or discipline past behaviors but to acknowledge and learn from them.  Realizing that they weren’t alone in this and that most organizations out there are having the same conversation made that much easier to do than it might otherwise have been – a key reason why employers need to act while the issue is receiving so much attention; there may never be another time so well-suited to create honest, open dialog.

As mentioned, this discussion developed around the managers’ own experiences, scenarios, and questions, not the canned ones that normally come with traditional training.  Believe me, there is no lack of examples most of us can personally draw upon, and once the first person in the room was willing to share something, everyone else was more comfortable doing so.  It’s almost as though people, male and female alike, feel that as a society, we’ve now granted permission to have this discussion.

The key was not to let any example be a wasted opportunity.  Every situation that was shared with the group was fleshed out…whether it potentially rose to the level of harassment – and how and why or why not, how others in the room perceived the same set of circumstances, how tricky situations could be handled, and perhaps most importantly, how to talk about it with each other without getting defensive.  This created the outcome that any training should strive to achieve – practical knowledge that participants could personally relate to and could realistically see application in their lives.

Without a doubt, this was one of the most productive discussions I’ve ever witnessed on the topic.  The group was engaged, willing to share personal experiences, and open to acknowledging how their own behaviors or lack of awareness could contribute to a concerning environment.  What evolved over the course of our conversation was a meaningful, grassroots understanding of harassment within a context that made sense to them – the kind of intrinsic awareness that can lead to a shift in attitudes and an evolution of the organization’s culture.  That honesty and “active” awareness is what traditional compliance training typically does not accomplish but is the key to moving the workplace from #metoo to #nomore.

Filed under HR Advisory