Why anti-harassment programmes are often ineffective

Why anti-harassment programmes are often ineffective


This op-ed was originally published in The Business Times on 5 February 2021.

Ask any company how it plans to combat workplace sexual harassment, and it will likely mention “anti-harassment training”. Sounds great in theory. But, in practice, are anti-harassment training programmes really effective? The short answer is: it depends. On their content, their delivery and a host of other factors.

AWARE’s training and consultancy arm, Catalyse (formerly known as AWARE Training Institute), has delivered anti-harassment training programmes to more than 300 companies since 2010. Our evidence-based and field-tested training programmes have enabled us to distil the key issues that companies should consider when carrying out such programmes. These training programmes are all the more important now that we have the results of the first-ever national survey, conducted by AWARE and Ipsos, on the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment in Singapore.

WHY OFFER SUCH PROGRAMMES?

Anti-harassment programmes have a chequered history. Research shows that programmes are not effective in addressing workplace harassment when they are carried out for self-serving reasons, for example to protect the company from legal liability. Reducing the likelihood of workplace harassment has to be the primary objective; otherwise, the training programmes often end up devoid of any clear goals, follow-up and measurement criteria. This renders them ineffective.

On the other hand, training programmes do play a crucial role in tackling harassment when done properly. They are instrumental in increasing knowledge about sexual harassment.

The AWARE-Ipsos survey found a big gap in people’s understanding of what counts as sexual harassment: when asked if they had been sexually harassed at work, one in five said yes. However, when specific harassment scenarios were described to them, the number of respondents who said yes went up to two in five.

Training programmes help establish a baseline of basic knowledge about what constitutes sexual harassment. This is especially important for companies with employees from diverse backgrounds. Reaching in for a hug may be acceptable in some cultures, but not in others. Training programmes can help bridge this knowledge gap in acceptable workplace behaviour.

Research shows that employees who received training are more likely to recognise unwanted sexual gestures and touching as sexual harassment than those who have not received any training. Anti-harassment programmes also aim to provide information on company anti-harassment policies and who to approach to report harassment. These sections of the training are naturally only as robust as the policies in place.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK?

Companies make three key errors when designing anti-harassment training programmes.

First, they rely too much on canned programmes. Many companies are content to offer training modules without customising them for the specifics of their organisation or industry. Of course the reporting structure may differ from company to company. A small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) may not have a human resources department, in which case complaints of sexual harassment may have to be filed with the chief executive or the SME’s board of advisers.

Often, these programmes also do not provide concrete, contextualised examples of behaviours that constitute harassment. Generic or abstract statements on harassment are unlikely to resonate with any employee.

Second, in a bid to increase interactivity, many anti-harassment training programmes rely on role-playing, that is using imaginary scenarios in which employees act out how they could react if they witness harassment, or hear about a colleague’s experience. Role-playing can often be a powerful exercise. Unfortunately, most of the time these scenarios tend to involve a male harasser and a female victim.

Although this perpetrator-victim combination is still the most prevalent, same-sex harassment and situations with female harassers and male victims also need to be included. Doing so would make the training inclusive and empower all employees, regardless of whether they fit the stereotype of a typical “victim”, to report cases of harassment.

Third, many companies also fail to see the link between the wider organisational culture and employee attitudes to training. If the organisational culture is generally perceived to be tolerant of workplace sexual harassment, employees are likely to be cynical about the content and intent of the training.

Other seemingly minor issues, such as using legal terms to describe people as “perpetrators” or “victims”, can also have an impact on whether the employees pay attention to the training or not. Individuals may reject the training wholesale because they do not feel like such labels apply to them.

A BETTER APPROACH

Training is most effective when it is offered frequently, is instructor-led (whether in person or virtual), and includes a combination of different exercises (case studies and small group discussions) to retain the attention of employees. Offering anti-harassment training on a regular basis not only conveys a company’s seriousness about tackling workplace sexual harassment, it also allows for time to go over the nuances or grey areas of what can be, after all, pretty complex.

In situations when in-person training is not possible, companies could offer blended training instead. This combines in-person and online training, and can be made interactive with the help of an experienced training developer and facilitator.

While all employees should receive training, there should be separate programmes for managers and non-managers. Managers, including the senior leadership team, need to be informed of their additional responsibilities, such as how to respond in the moment when someone reports harassment to them.

Furthermore, managers should be trained to proactively respond to harassment situations even without a complaint. This is absolutely crucial – managers might be seen as condoning unacceptable workplace behaviours if they do not intervene in situations unfolding before them.

In both workplace and campus settings, there is a growing recognition of the role bystanders can play in stopping harassment. We therefore also recommend that anti-harassment training programmes incorporate bystander training. Bystanders are often aware of harassment before managers. Yet they may not be incentivised to report, or (as witnesses, not targets, of the harassment) may not know how to report. They can also be trained to intervene in harassment situations without causing further harm to themselves or victims.

If a company’s ultimate goal is to reduce the likelihood of workplace sexual harassment, it should remember that training is only one part of a suite of measures to adopt. At the end of the day, it will take a multi-pronged effort to stamp out workplace harassment, including creating office cultures that promote respect and inclusion.

Caroline Callow, Senior Facilitator, Catalyse