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Sexual Harassment Training and the Importance of Subtlety

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Sexual Harassment Training and the Importance of Subtlety

“So what do you do? Where do you work?” These are questions that you’ll inevitably hear some variation of at any networking event. This week I attended the Digital Summit in Atlanta, a conference for digital marketers of all types, and had the opportunity to meet lots and lots of interesting people. From a video game designer doing double duty as the marketing generalist for his company, to a social media marketer responsible for marketing hundreds of arts and crafts product lines and brands, the Summit attracts everyone from solo entrepreneurs to giant name brands and everyone in between.

So what do I do, and where do I work? Depending on the depth of conversation, I’d answer that I’m a content strategist and that I work for a governance, risk management, and compliance company. A lot of folks hadn’t been exposed to what the GRC field encompasses, so I’d usually mention that we make sexual harassment, anti-bribery, anti-corruption, and business ethics training, since most people have taken part in one of those. The reactions were about what I expected, “Ah yes, anti-bribery, very important. Mm. Anti-corruption, definitely, that makes sense. Sexual harassment training? I’ve got a story about that…”

Stories of Bad Sexual Harassment Training

I probably heard 15 versions of, “Oh my wow, let me tell you about the horrific sexual harassment training we had.” One gentleman even mentioned the extremely graphic questions asked at his company when they were reviewing what was appropriate in the workplace and what wasn’t. “It was so ridiculous,” he finished, “It’s not like we don’t know what sexual harassment is.” How convenient that I was already planning on writing about this, because this is exactly where stereotypically bad sexual harassment training really misses the mark: subtlety.

Before I dive into what I mean by subtlety, let me share one more story with you. Nearly every woman that I’ve spoken to has a story about being sexual harassed, whether her own experience, or that of someone in her immediate circle of colleagues, friends, and family. And in just about every one of those stories, they weren’t sure whether or not it was sexual harassment until long after the incidents occurred.

What’s Appropriate and What’s Not?

We all know that it’s inappropriate for a male boss to give his female intern a back massage in his office. What about the male intern asking an attractive female intern out for a cup of coffee? Well, there are 50 versions of that scenario, ranging from completely appropriate to completely inappropriate. What if she’s said no to him a dozen times before – probably not appropriate. What if he’s inviting her out to celebrate her graduation, and they’re friends – probably fine.

The key here is that you can’t possibly lay out every inappropriate scenario; so many training providers take the easy way out by showcasing extreme and improbable scenarios. The other problem is that these vague, subtle, cloudy situations are much more likely to go unreported, because even the employees that are being harassed don’t recognize the situation for what it is. Herein lies the true value and opportunity for sexual harassment training: teaching employees about what types of behavior to look for in the workplace around them, and recognizing the importance of reporting even “minor” or “borderline” situations for investigation. A good rule of thumb is to teach employees to report any situation in which another employee is visibly uncomfortable. If they approach the employee, she may respond with, “Oh, he was only kidding,” or, “It’s not a big deal, I wouldn’t want anything to happen to him,” even though she did feel uncomfortable or disconcerted.

Encouraging Employees to Speak Up

Since people often don’t recognize these situations when they’re involved in them, they may not think about the fact that others may be uncomfortable as well. In one situation, after one woman’s colleague reported her harasser, it came out that several other reports had been filed against the same man. This is why it’s critical to report early, rather than waiting for the obvious event – you may prevent someone else being sexually harassed. This is a concept you may want to tie into your sexual harassment training program, since the reporter of the incident is often not the person who was harassed.

If your goal is to foster transparency and encourage a speak up culture, you may find it helpful to lay out in your sexual harassment training program how every step of reporting works. Walk your employees through their options for reporting, whether it’s an anonymous third-party whistleblower hotline or web reporting tool, how their response will be captured, how they can find out about the status of the investigation, and what an investigation looks like. Knowing what the process looks like removes a lot of the fear, which empowers employees to report what they see.

Also consider implementing supervisor specific sexual harassment training. Although AB 1825 training is only mandatory in California, Maine, and Connecticut, it lays out some best practices that can be used anywhere, one of which is supervisor specific training. An employee who has a close relationship with his or her supervisor may feel more comfortable reporting a situation or discussing a situation with that supervisor, rather than an anonymous hotline or web tool. The benefit of training supervisors is that they will know how to appropriately respond to the employee and the information they are being given. They will be able to reassure the employee, let them know that their report has been heard, and communicate in a manner that further encourages the employee to speak up. If the employee does not feel that his report was heard or acted on, he may simply not report other inappropriate behavior he witnesses.

So there we have it: make it subtle, encourage speaking up, and train your supervisors how to respond. I’d love to hear your suggestions on how to further improve sexual harassment training and reporting in the workplace. Leave them in the comments below and I’ll be sure to address them in a future blog!

About the Author

Pia Adolphsen, Associate Manager of Marketing Content Strategy. Pia leads content strategy at The Network. Previously, she led client advocacy and marketing initiatives in the competitive intelligence industry. She is strongly in favor of lattes, 1.0mm pens, and her Georgia Bulldogs. Connect with Pia on LinkedIn


  1. June 4, 2014 at 6:52 pm

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  4. June 4, 2015 at 12:30 pm

    We recently launched a social network site based on sexual harassment, rape, bullying, and all forms of violence. Communicate, discuss, and share your story. Thanks.

    Reply »

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