Can Sexual Harassment Training Come of Age?

Seven in ten companies have it, but critics say this key form of prevention hasn’t changed much in decades.

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Morgan Mercer tightens the straps on my virtual reality headset, and moments later I’m transported from the basement of a Silicon Valley startup incubator to a modern, nondescript industrial office with high concrete ceilings and glass walls. My invisible avatar, like the Ghost of Yet-to-Come, stands in the middle of the room, among four white-collar employees—three men and a lone woman seated on a couch rifling through paperwork.

It’s clear the man posted behind the desk, vaguely older than the rest, is at the top of the hierarchal totem. He casually migrates from his mahogany throne to sit on the coffee table across from his female subordinate, leaning over as he praises her recent contributions to the team. The two other coworkers exchange glances only to return their gazes downward to the task at hand. Back in San Mateo, I’m suddenly warm and unwrap my scarf.


Mention the topic of sexual harassment training and professionals of every age may well grimace, recalling their own experiences of watching grainy, overly coiffed video lectures and clicking through stale PowerPoint presentations. A survey by the Association for Talent Development, with members from 120 countries, found more than 70 percent of companies offer some form of sexual harassment training. But unlike the clients they serve, the cottage compliance industry has lacked innovation. By the industry’s own admission, not to mention many in HR offices, much of it has remained virtually—and remarkably—unchanged since it started decades ago, becoming little more than a box-checking function to protect companies from liability. Even the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has taken notice, saying in a 2016 report that workplace harassment training “has not been a productive tool” and can do more harm than good.

While there may be many reasons, both legitimate and not, behind the collective inertia, one thing has become clear in 2018: Complacency is no longer an option. Companies have more to dread than lawsuits. In social media, advocates have perhaps an even more powerful platform to voice their grievances. But the #MeToo movement has had another effect—it’s broken off the shackles of fear.

“There was a lot of trepidation to try something new, because everyone thought it would get them in trouble,” says Elizabeth Tippet, an associate law professor at University of Oregon. “#MeToo has freed business to move beyond the status quo.” In the wake of Harvey Weinstein and widespread revelations of workplace misconduct, space has been created for those like Mercer (who is currently piloting Vantage Point, a fully immersive virtual reality sexual harassment training program) to develop curriculums that might actually succeed in making the office a more fair, empathetic and safe place.

Meanwhile, in the virtual world, el jefe struts back to his leather cathedra and turns the conversation to an upcoming business trip to New York. “My sister lives in the city,” says the woman. No, he says. It’s going to be long hours and require her full dedication. The other two male colleagues wrap up and make plans to grab an after-work drink. The boss asks the woman to stay behind.

Moments later, a text bubble appears on the horizon presenting what should be a simple question: What’s the best response from the observers?

Corporate conduct policies date back to the ’60s, when the Supreme Court first recognized sexual harassment as a form of discrimination under the Civil Rights Act. Then came Clarence Thomas. While some companies began educating employees in the ’80s, sexual harassment training became more widespread in the ’90s, after Anita Hill captured America’s attention and rattled its leaders when she accused the Supreme Court nominee during his confirmation hearings of lewd behavior while she worked for him.

In early iterations, sexual harassment trainings included written study guides, real-life testimonials and broader discussions about power dynamics and gender discrimination. The industry officially calcified in 1998, though, when the high court ruled in two separate cases that providing anti-harassment training and grievance reporting systems, even if they aren’t effective, shields companies from liability. “There was an element of willful ignorance; a we-just-want-everyone-to-pass attitude,” says Andrew Rawson, co-founder of Traliant, which makes compliance-training materials that hope for Netflix cachet and, as he says, “don’t suck.” Traliant launched in 2016 and has quickly grown to more than 400 clients, including Hilton Hotels and the US Congress Office of Compliance.


Over time, offerings, developed mostly by lawyers, began to homogenize: an on-screen talking head outlines company policy and the business costs of harassment, interspersed with cautionary examples that are often either a) blatant or b) so convoluted that it’s hard to distinguish between permissible and impermissible behavior. The latter risks sending the message that white men—who tend also to be the gatekeepers—should simply avoid interacting with marginalized groups, a phenomenon some are calling modern-day discrimination. Victims are then advised to report offenses through the company’s institutionalized system, the same one that critics say failed to protect them in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, the problem is just as ubiquitous today as it was 30 years ago, according to the EEOC and other sources. “You don’t change behavior by teaching people the law or policy,” says Ingrid Fredeen, vice president of Navex Global, one of the largest compliance-training providers. The company was born out of a law firm in the ’90s but grew into an independent business that now takes a holistic approach by offering compliance management systems, risk rates for assessing contractors, a hotline and case management. “You have to learn to have empathy,” Fredeen says. According to the EEOC, about 25 percent of women report having been sexually harassed at work. One-third of those who file complaints say they in turn were demoted, fired, harassed further or raped. From 2010 to 2016, employers paid $699 million to workers alleging harassment through the agency. That figure doesn’t include settlements facilitated without federal intervention.

And direct payments to victims are of course only a sliver of the overall toll. Studies show tainted workplace relationships vastly diminish productivity. Employees spend less time at the office and are more distracted when they are there. What most people don’t recognize, though: It isn’t just the victims who suffer. Bystanders also absorb the psychological reverberations of sexual harassment, magnifying productivity loss far beyond isolated incidents.

The correct answer to how observers should respond? It’s complicated.

The type of training described earlier is known as bystander intervention and empowers witnesses to step in, ideally before something egregious occurs. The approach is increasingly used on school campuses and in the military to combat sexual violence. In this instance, the boss is “grooming” his female subordinate. “It’s not just the harassment but what leads up to it,” Mercer says.

Based on their response, users are then branched to another scenario. I chose correctly, so it’s on to empathy training. But wait. I’m not ready.

If I were to put myself in the position of the onlooking coworkers, what would I have done? He was close, but was he too close?

I want to see the right response in action. I want practice. Like athletes who visualize their every move, I want to know what to say and how to say it. Because I don’t know. And I’ve been thinking and writing about this stuff for years. Not to mention having been the target of unwelcome advances. “Mental preparation makes responding to sexual harassment more automatic and, like anything, practice increases confidence,” Mercer says.

While there are still many unknowns, experts in this field seem to agree that the most effective prevention practices emphasize empathy and instill global accountability. As Rawson says, “Disrupt, confront, comfort.” Eden King, a psychology professor at Rice University, has found some evidence that training programs have better outcomes when they are longer than four hours, incorporate interactive learning and face-to-face interaction, are conducted by outside experts, and actively involve leaders in the workplace. The interactive component is important because it not only allows the curriculum to be tailored to an individual but has the added benefit of collecting data, so companies know developmentally where employees are at. Meanwhile, trainers can then use the outcomes to measure comprehension.

“This is a journey,” says Fredeen. “People don’t always say things that are appropriate and people have different tolerances. We have to learn to be respectful—and be willing to apologize. And willing to receive an apology.”

In other words, it’s going to get messy, requiring companies to create a safe space for dialogue both before, during and after any mistreatment—an area where many startups are jumping in, from tEQuitable, STOPit Solutions and AllVoices, which provide platforms for employees to report workplace discrimination, to Bravely and BetterBrave, which offer unbiased, independent HR coaching. Even David Schwimmer, better known as Ross from the ’90s sitcom “Friends,” released a series of public service announcements called #ThatsHarassment. “Look, men have a lot to learn, but you’re not going to learn anything without dialogue,” Schwimmer told the New York Times earlier this year.


Most experts also say that by itself, sexual harassment training can be meaningless, especially when it is only about rules. “The ‘dos and don’ts’ still objectify people,” says Andrés Tapia, one of Korn Ferry’s global diversity and inclusion leaders, “as opposed to trying to be inclusive and showing the whole value of people for who they are.” Social science suggests employees are more likely to respond to a morale framework. This sort of “civility training” puts the focus on promoting respect rather than policing behavior. In its report, the EEOC found that the companies that succeeded in creating positive cultures “owned” their well-handled complaints, rather than burying them. That of course starts at the top, with leaders who invest resources, take honest inventories and promote more women. “There’s been a lot of pressure put on training to solve an ailing culture,” Fredeen says. “Training is just one piece of the puzzle.”

Back at the Silicon Valley startup hub, I’m once again transported to the virtual office, but this time we’re in a common space. The two male colleagues from the night before are working on parallel couches, when their visibly shaken female coworker approaches. She explains that after they left, the boss propositioned her. When she rebuffed his advances, he blamed her for sending mixed signals. What was this going to mean for her career?

One man remained silent, though clearly concerned. The other tried to console her, but in his attempts only justified the boss’s behavior—maybe it really was a misunderstanding, I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it, he won’t retaliate against you.

I remove the headset but the feeling of discomfort in my gut lingers. Mercer and I share our own experiences of sexual harassment and assault and talk about not what it would be like to never have experienced them but what it would mean to be met with empathy. When we leave the conference room, I glance around the floor. Mercer and I are the only women in a sea of men.

(click image to enlarge)


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