Thursday, June 23, 2016

Harassment Training Doesn’t Work?

Or maybe just not in the way we intend

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC’s) Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace released its report this week with findings that may surprise some about the effectiveness of workplace anti-harassment training. It doesn’t work. The report is rather long, so if you’re pressed for time read the executive summary.

If we’re honest with ourselves and brave enough to admit it, we’ve known this for a while. The number of claims to the EEOC involving harassment for 2015 was 27,893– and those are just the cases filed – many more go unreported. That number hasn’t varied much over several years.

Interestingly, the EEOC isn’t the first to tell us that training doesn’t work. Several fairly recent academic studies (including UC Berkeley), highlighted in this article from The Guardian tell the tale. In some cases, the anti-sexual harassment training seemed to make men less likely to consider behavior as harassment, and less likely to report it if observed. Some of the reasons posited by these studies include that the training may make some men feel threatened or afraid they’ll face false accusations, and may respond in a defensive manner; or that the training may trigger implicit gender biases, making it more likely for them to stereotype women. Since there are few studies that show that such training has positive effects, it’s difficult to know the reasons it’s not effective.

The real question is, what do we do about it? The agency certainly isn’t backtracking on its position on training. If you’re the target of an investigation and you haven’t done any training, you’re going down. 

The EEOC report does give several examples of things it feels will help make anti-harassment efforts more effective. Many of them are not new to most HR pros. Getting buy-in and support from top leadership, including the time and resources for proper training; and utilizing live, in-person training presented by someone who knows your workplace. Yes, sometimes having an outside trainer can be helpful. However, that person doesn’t know your company, doesn’t know the day-to-day culture of your workplace or how things play out in your world. Having someone who is not in-the-know do the training can result in your employees feeling a disconnect between the training content and their real world. And just sitting someone in front of an off-the-shelf online video is rarely effective.

The report also outlined a few points that I think are important and have been undervalued and underutilized in many workplaces. Specifically, holding people accountable, at all levels. Making mid-level managers and front-line supervisors accountable for both preventing and reporting harassment is too often ignored. Let’s face it, HR can’t possibly be the only one carrying the banner or being responsible for the results!

Creating a culture that doesn’t tolerate harassment or discrimination is important and is the goal for most workplaces. But I don’t think it goes far enough, or is done in an effective way. Too often these efforts become words on a policy or a poster in the cafeteria –symbolic compliance. It should go further and have real meaning and real consequences when it goes wrong. Creating a civil workplace in which bad behavior is not tolerated, is addressed in a fair, consistent manner and is proportional to the severity of the offense is critical. It’s critical that a company’s commitment to keeping its workplace free of harassment and discrimination – even if it doesn’t rise to the level of being illegal – be obvious to all employees. You can’t smooth over the actions of someone who is high performer, just because he/she is a high performer. It just doesn’t float.

Recognizing the dearth of research around the effectiveness of harassment training and therefore substantive guidance on what is, and what is not useful, there are also several statements included that the EEOC should include in its conciliation efforts and settlements of claims, the agreement that employers allow researchers into their workplaces to study these issues. While I agree more study needs to be done, I’m not sure that requiring employers to facilitate it is workable. 

I was very happy to see the agency feels it should have a conversation with the NLRB concerning the "confidentiality of workplace investigations, and the permissible scope of policies regulating workplace social media usage" and the "permissible content of workplace "civility codes." I’d love to be a part of that conversation! Since the NLRB seems hell-bent on eliminating the expectation or requirement for civil behavior in the workplace, I think the EEOC has a tough row to hoe on these issues. 

All in all, it’s a very interesting report. Again, not a whole lot of new insight, but it’s a step in the right direction.

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