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Before conducting training, I spend time getting to know leadership and becoming familiar with the company, its mission, and its core values. I want to understand the company’s goals and what types of training they have had in the past. I want to know whether there have been complaints, and if so, how they have been handled. I also want to be satisfied that if there is a complaint of harassment that it will be dealt with appropriately.

I cannot, in good conscience, train on harassment prevention if I am not convinced that the company will do its best to get it right.

So many studies over the past couple of years have shown that nearly three quarters of people will not come forward to complain about workplace harassment (United States Equal Opportunity Employment Commission study). Roughly the same percentage of people believe that a complaint will lead to retaliation.  In fact, a recent study by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst Center for Employment Equity found that:

  • About 5 million employees are sexually harassed in the workplace each year
  • The overwhelming majority (99.8%) of people who experience sexual harassment at work never file formal charges.

Those numbers scare the heck out of me.

Sexual harassment can be severe or pervasive. Pervasive harassment is typically considered to be less severe but happens frequently enough to interfere with or change the terms and conditions of employment. It is possible for people who engage in what could lead to pervasive harassment to learn from harassment prevention training how to comport themselves. That can and in fact, often is the case. As much as we can take pride in making progress with pervasive harassment, the same cannot be said of severe harassment. Sadly, it is next to impossible to convey a meaningful message to a person that it is not all right to fondle a person against her will. That is not realistic.

So, let’s quit. Stop the training, I am going to pack my bag and walk out. After all, this training is a waste of time. Right? Hey, if there is nothing that I can say or do that will get Groper to keep his hands to himself, I should give up. Wrong. By emphasizing voice and respect it is realistic to expect that the vast majority of issues in the workplace can be resolved. Teach employees that it is perfectly all right to speak up when it is felt that another employee has crossed the line. Train on respectful ways to deliver the message. Finally, teach employees to be respectful when receiving the message.

Encouraging employees to stress voice and respect empowers them to resolve situations before they become major problems. For example, when an employee politely asks another employee out on a date, we can train on how the employee should respond. The same can be true when an employee is uncomfortable receiving compliments from a co-worker. Or, the same can be true regarding the hand on the shoulder. Unwelcomed and unwanted attention can be stopped before it becomes pervasive.

Wait a minute – this has nothing to do with Groper and severe harassment. Oh, but it does. The shift in perception will not happen overnight. That is why training should be part of an initiative. Build a bridge so that employees in all parts of the organization feel safe. If successful, the bad actor’s conduct gets reported and the organization has an opportunity to act. Make it clear that there is no room for Groper in this workplace.

Keep in mind, it will take an initiative to shift perception. This includes training, coaching, improving communication, and messaging on an ongoing basis. The goal is to constantly strive to do better. Each time that an employee expresses concern should be viewed as an opportunity. Seize that opportunity as a chance to convey to that employee that the issue is being taken seriously and every effort will be made to do better. OK is never good enough. Keep in mind that the employee with that issue will share his or her impression of how the matter was handled with co-workers. The better the response, the more likely it is that the major issues like severe harassment will get reported to leadership.