Voices from the Crowd: Providers Should be Listening to Opinions on Harassment Training

Voices from the Crowd: Providers Should be Listening to Opinions on Harassment Training

I gave my first California harassment prevention training presentation in 2007, just one year out of law school. Some people laughed with me, some people undoubtedly laughed at me, some people learned, and some people were embarrassed for themselves (and possibly for me). In the thirteen years since I stood in that hotel board room in 2007 people have always been quick to critique (for better and worse) presentations on this very controversial topic. From those critiques improvements and innovation have been born. While any method of corporate education is far from perfect (and never will be), those providers who choose to listen to the voices in the crowd to improve their products will always continue to be leaders in the marketplace. What holds true whether the product is a live presentation or a software program is we should all constantly strive to get better in an area where the content is mandatory in many places.

Perhaps nowhere online are people more vocal than Twitter. A lightning rod for opinion, Twitter is useful for harvesting unfiltered opinions on anything. While these opinions are often anonymous, and therefore need to be taken with a grain of salt, when enough of the same is written in cyberspace, it is fair to say that a large sample size represents the opinion of many. This article analyzes a variety of common opinions about harassment training, and how the industry can strive to improve in areas it is clearly deficient as a whole. Please note that all screen names and avatars have been removed to retain the anonymity of the poster.

Harassment Training is Common Sense and We Shouldn’t Have to do it

All too often employees complain that the material harassment training teaches is “common sense” and shouldn’t be necessary. While this is a valid argument, the same “common sense” that is the subject of harassment training is the very foundation of the claims that are either a) not being brought to light until it is too late; or b) forming the basis for large lawsuits against employers. In either event, when an employee complains about the common sense nature of harassment training, perhaps that is a good thing. If the message is clear to many employees, perhaps the industry as a whole is doing its job and the training has become mere reinforcement. That said, the training employees criticize is often mandatory. Managers should stress that common sense or not, we absolutely must conduct this training because the subject matter is so important.

“The Training is (or isn’t) Teaching me how to Harass Effectively”

It surprises the majority, but a common question I get from executives in social situations is some version of “can you teach me how to harass and not get caught?” Indeed, in 2020 people are still looking at harassment as a joke, and attempting to circumvent the laws, rather than comply with them and learn about the damaging impact this behavior has on workplace culture. The tweet above is a version of this, as the user is joking that he and his wife were really taking the training to learn new ways to behave inappropriately.

Training providers have a duty to ensure that users understand the seriousness of harassment, and the devastating consequences that can happen when an organization does not do everything in its power to stop it. The fact that the type of thinking expressed in the tweet above (even in jest, which is how most harassment starts) has not been eradicated is concerning to say the least. In order to remedy this outdated thinking, providers need to be better about including the real life experiences of harassment victims who are willing to share the bouts with mental illness, depression, and other very real consequences that come at the expense of others’ jokes and inappropriate behavior.

“Harassment Training is My Organization’s Way of Keeping Me Silent” 

A theme of the last three years of sexual harassment enlightenment has been an attempt by victims to increase awareness. Even though organizations of all types have publicly stated an increased desire to listen to and rectify complaints of harassment, the two tweets above are still a common gripe among employees. Many in the workforce feel that their organization is only providing training because they “have to.” These similarly skeptical employees still feel that organizations only want to hear about complaints so that they can “quash” them or cover them up.

A lot of harassment prevention training programs simply do not do a good enough job of expressing the need for coming forward with complaints of all types. Frequently, retaliation sections focus only on the illegality of the topic, and not how the organization itself will welcome and listen to complaints. Syntrio has developed a suite of courses aimed at both employees’ right to speak up and the need for respect in listening to and investigating complaints. When employees know the organization cares (and that care is communicated in the training message), they are more likely to feel comfortable reporting concerns knowing that they are likely to actually be rectified, rather than covered up or dismissed.

Interactivity and Gamification (for the sake of doing so) can be Patronizing

At least two mandatory harassment training laws (California and New York) mandate interactivity as part of required harassment prevention training. The theory behind this requirement is group discussion and participation lead to better learning. With a shift toward e-learning as the primary means of harassment training delivery came a need to comply with interactivity requirements in a non-group setting. Admittedly, for years, providers have struggled to make programs interactive without being obvious that the reason behind the interactivity is compliance.

Some providers have indeed given up on the quest for quality interaction altogether and instead included boring tasks like including a movable bar on a page for the user to rate “how bad is this conduct.” These types of tactics elicit responses like the tweet above, wherein the user is mocking the program for its poor delivery. When a user is turned off by the material, he or she is likely to tune out immediately, and any message the organization wishes to deliver will badly miss the mark.

In order to increase interactivity while maintaining engagement, providers must be more invested in holding the attention of the user. While interactive scenarios where the user can choose their path through the material are useful, they are only useful if the user can buy into the characters on screen as relatable and realistic. Therefore, the writing behind the programs is critical. While some of the points that must be included in any harassment prevention training program are formulaic, there are ways to use popular culture and current events to maintain attention — assuming the provider is willing to make periodic updates to its courseware.

All of the complaints displayed above are valid criticisms of harassment prevention training (and particularly e-learning) in 2020. We must do better in our role as liaisons between the law and the end user at holding attention and ensuring that all employees understand the seriousness of harassment and the damage it will cause. Failing to do so will keep us providing training, but without effectuating any meaningful change in workplace culture. If we cannot prevent incidents from occurring, then harassment training truly would be a waste of time. Thankfully, there are providers striving to achieve greatness in this area, and all users should know that we hear your complaints and are working hard to improve our products in all areas.

Since 2007, Jonathan has practiced labor and employment law, with a focus on litigation, individual plaintiff and class action discrimination, harassment, and other employment-specific cases as well as focusing his practice toward advising employers on preventive practice. Jonathan has presented over 100 live employment discrimination and harassment prevention training courses across all 50 states.

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