Top 5 Ways Employers Can Use Harassment Training to Improve Culture

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Top 5 Ways Employers Can Use Harassment Training to Improve Culture

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and nowhere is that more apparent than in legislation. Illinois legislators expended great effort last year to make sure Illinois employees would have increased protections in the workplace. That’s a laudatory goal, and some of the laws enacted will do a lot of residents a lot of good. The new requirement that every employer provide all employees with annual harassment training, however, could go either way, depending on the implementation.

Many companies have been providing harassment training for years. Yet harassment claims, much like employee disengagement, have been on the rise. While check-the-box training platforms can provide some limitation upon employer liability, many trainings are simply ineffective. A 2016 report by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency charged with enforcing nondiscrimination and civil rights laws, concluded that “much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool—it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability.” And while such trainings might limit the liability exposure for an employer, some training programs seemingly encourage rather than discourage legal claims. Even worse, studies have shown that trainings can even work against their own intended purpose, for example, by reinforcing gender stereotypes.

If trainings can have such negative effects, how can an employer best implement the new training requirement to improve company culture?

First, keep the end in mind. Trainings should be implemented with an aim towards creating a culture in which all employees are treated as equals and respectful interactions are simply assumed. Every employee should be held to the same standard of appropriate behavior. The point is to make people aware of the bar, and even to raise it, not to simply avoid being caught up in a lawsuit.

Second, make every employee responsible for the culture of the organization. Training should equip all employees with the knowledge and tools to stop harassment, instead of focusing on the two archetypal characters no one wants to be: harasser or victim. Witnesses can be empowered to speak up and intervene when harassment occurs. This type of training has been found to be effective when applied in the military setting. And every employee should be aware of how to report harassment when it does occur.

Third, keep in mind that most people know what not to do, but get confused about what they ought to do. Harassment trainings should focus on the right behaviors rather than just describing the wrong ones. Many training programs are quick to wag a finger at employees without providing guidance as to what is expected of them and the types of conduct that will be rewarded. Related to the first point, a training program should be about creating something—in this case a positive workplace culture—not just about avoiding a negative report or legal outcome.

Fourth, repeat trainings often. Changing behaviors is hard. Some say that it takes 66 days to develop a habit and years to turn that habit into a behavior. By repeating trainings, you allow your employees to have your policies front and center in their minds, as opposed to something they hear every other year, or only once. By discussing concrete behaviors and real-world scenarios in your business, your workforce can develop a solid sense of how training should play out on the ground, day to day. Immediate recall, critical thinking about harassment, and open discussion will allow the material you are training on to become a habit and, eventually, a learned behavior that becomes second nature. Moreover, consistent trainings don’t only remind your workforce of what they need to do, but the why behind it. Employees are usually more comfortable adopting new standards or being encouraged in a certain direction if they know why, and can see some benefit to themselves and the company as a whole. Use your training program to discuss how you want your company culture to evolve, not just how employees can avoid getting into trouble with HR.

Finally, make sure that all employees understand the consequences of harassment. While employees should know that egregious or repeat offenders will be terminated, it should be clear that the first step in many cases will be counseling or coaching. Many employees are afraid to report bad behavior when they believe termination is a certainty, as is mandated by a “zero-tolerance” policy. Knowing that an employer will use a response based on the severity of the behavior and the totality of circumstances of an incident will encourage more people to speak up and take responsibility for their workplace culture.

The point of harassment training shouldn’t be to avoid legal liability. Rather, it should be to foster employee involvement in creating a more positive working environment that endures. If business owners put forth the effort to implement effective training programs, the good intentions behind the state’s new training requirement will bear fruit and greatly improve workplaces throughout Illinois.