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In the age of #MeToo, where victims’ stories have been amplified across media platforms, there is a growing pressure on organizations to shore up liability protection and reinforce company culture through harassment prevention training.
But the parade of high-profile media coverage doesn’t always come with actionable advice.
How do we make good on the evolving expectations of a safe and equitable workplace? How do we turn the earnest desire to prevent harm into actual results? Much has been said about training and education, but does it actually work?
Does harassment training make a difference?
Harassment training has been around en force since the 90’s, yet, as noted by Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kaley in the Harvard Business Review, little has changed in the number of reported harassment cases nearly three decades later. This lack of improvement is confusing at first glance, but upon closer inspection, a troublesome trait of human nature emerges that is familiar to both parents of toddlers and anyone who watches political debates: the you can’t make me phenomenon.
Focusing on positive behavior: A case for a different kind of harassment training
“To actually prevent harassment, companies need to create a culture in which women are treated as equals and employees treat one another with respect,” writes Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times. In other words, direct people to the culture you want them to uphold, not the behavior you want them to avoid.
Presenting the ideal model of respect and intervention, rather than simply dividing people into categories of victims and predators, has a longer-lasting and more meaningful impact.
When it comes to improving the return on training investment dollars and hours, it comes down to a few key areas of focus.
Focus on the culture you want, not the culture you have
Defining and addressing specific cases of harassment in your workplace can never be simply ignored, certainly not if you want to see a change in company culture. However, simply focusing on the bad behavior does little to change it. When harassment is present, most people on your team know there is an issue already, and those who don’t see the problem need more than a hand-slap to make real progress.
The key here is creating team buy-in on what ideal culture looks like, and drawing some lines around what the team will not tolerate in terms of behavior. It is easy to roll your eyes and criticize policy being passed down from management, but it is more difficult to run in direct opposition to the written and unwritten rules of the team.
Encourage peer intervention and support
Building a “see something, say something” policy is a key factor in making sensitivity training a success. Teams that are empowered to diplomatically confront harassers as well as support those impacted by harassment are more likely to see lasting change and improvement in harassing behaviors.
The network effect of team members willing to address bad behavior and help each other has a compounding impact on the likelihood and extent of harassment in the workplace. “We know that workplace incivility often acts as a ‘gateway drug’ to workplace harassment,” states Chai Feldblum, a commissioner with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Empowering teams to confront uncivil behavior while also upholding core values like respect, servant leadership, and a supportive mindset in times of stress goes a long way to creating strong, safe bonds between team members.
The long game: Don’t expect all workplace harassment to disappear overnight
Changing culture is hard. Just ask any of the Roman Emperors, the producers of Carrie: The Musical, and your Uncle Gary, who is still sporting those lamb chomps. Changing people’s beliefs takes time, energy, and consistent messaging.
Except in the most extreme situations, creating a safer and more respectful company culture isn’t a lobotomy. As much as you may want to surgically replace your team’s problems, the reality is that, until the underlying culture changes, they will probably just be backfilled by more of the same. Implementing change means working within the culture, not against it, and that takes consistent, on-target messaging about who the team is, what they stand for, and where they are headed.
Will harassment training improve a team?
This is the million-dollar question and as with most things, the answer is: it depends. With clear and, most importantly, supportive leadership on the topic of harassment, a team has a real shot and making huge strides in the right direction.
Changes for the better will take time, team buy-in, and, of course, some well-crafted training. Remember, a team that has no room for harassment makes a great deal of room for growth. Here’s to deeper friendships, better teams and more respect.