Does sexual harassment training work?

To be effective, sexual harassment training needs to go beyond outdated formats from when managing sexual harassment in the workplace was still in its infancy. Research shows that traditional sexual harassment training courses don’t work. However, with the right training content and program in place, your training can not only be effective, but also help you develop a healthy workplace culture where employees feel safe and your business is proactively mitigating risk. 

In this blog, we cover the main reasons why sexual harassment training might not be working in your workplace. We also outline the steps that you need to take to develop highly engaging and effective training courses and a robust learning program that protects both your business and your employees.  

What is sexual harassment training and why is it important? 

Sexual harassment training aims to increase the awareness and accuracy of recognizing sexual harassment at work, as well as to educate employees about your company’s policy and processes for handling any misconduct of a sexual nature, such as:  

  • Filing a complaint; 
  • The organization's response to complaints;
  • Where further support can be found; and so on.  

Sexual harassment training courses also educate your workforce on why it’s illegal and how it is damaging to individuals and the organization alike.  

Even though businesses have been conducting anti-harassment training for decades now, sexual harassment at work is still with us. Studies show that 40% of women and 16% of men say they’ve been sexually harassed at work. Another research study discovered that 64% of women and 53% of men believe that sexual harassment happens at their workplace. And with the rise of the #MeToo movement in 2017, conversations about preventing sexual harassment in workplaces have come to the forefront of attention for media and organizations. 

Not addressing sexual harassment or taking all necessary measures to prevent it from occurring in the first place has consequences. It can bring severe legal and financial consequences for your business, and it can forever alter the lives of those who experienced the harassment. So, is sexual harassment training effective?  


3 reasons why your sexual harassment training doesn’t work 

A study from 2019 revealed that “neither the training programs that most companies put all workers through nor the grievance procedures that they have implemented are helping to solve the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace.” In fact, both tend to have the exact opposite effects and result in an increase in worker dissatisfaction and turnover. But why is that? Here are the top three reasons why sexual harassment training might not work—and could even backfire.  

Reason 1: Focusing content on forbidden behaviors 

When someone tells you not to think about something, your mind has a sneaky way of returning to that exact thought. In a study led by psychologist Daniel Wegner, people were told not to think about a white bear. They spent the next five minutes thinking aloud and ringing a bell if they spoke or thought of a white bear. On average, the white bear appeared in their thoughts every minute. 

But why does something as serious as sexual harassment training create a backlash? The problem is with how the training is presented. Research shows that men who are inclined to harass women before training actually become more accepting of such behavior after training. 

Another reason why harassment training might backlash is because it’s typically mandatory, which sends the message that employees must pay attention to the issue, and it focuses on forbidden behaviors, which signals that everyone is immoral and doesn’t know where the line is. Whenever we tell people that they’re the problem, they’ll get defensive—and once that happens, they’ll be much less likely to become part of the solution. 

Reason 2: It ignores structural issues such as power dynamics and discrimination  

Without an intervention on power and discrimination at work, training that focuses only on sexual harassment addresses a small part of a bigger problem and is less likely to be effective. Not only this, but anti-sexual harassment training has been shown to reinforce problematic gender norms and stereotypes because it associates men and women with traditional gender roles. 

Reason 3: There isn’t real investment in preventing the issue 

Another reason why sexual harassment training might not be working could be if there isn’t real investment in preventing and eradicating sexual harassment by the organization and its leadership. In this case, the training is only symbolic, rather than a real effort. This happens because anti-sexual harassment training often can be an easy way out to avoid financial or reputational losses, while the company still looks like it is acting in good faith. 


What makes an effective sexual harassment training course? 

When done properly and with the right investment and support behind it, sexual harassment training can be highly effective in enabling the creation of a workplace culture with zero tolerance towards sexual harassment and an educated workforce where everyone feels accountable and empowered to address any issues. (By the way, you can request a demo LRN’s newly designed anti-harassment and discrimination training courses, including our course on preventing sexual harassment.) 

It’s important to consider your workforce’s specific requirements as well as a range of different training formats, content, and tactics to ensure that your training works the best it can. Some of these include: 

1) Assess the best training format, such as blended learning or a combination of multiple formats like video, e-learning, classroom training, and performance support after-the-fact.  

2) Research shows the most effective training is at least four hours long, conducted in small groups, and is interactive. Training programs also need to provide ongoing education throughout the year with content customized to particular industries or departments. 

3) Training should be immersive and extensive, offering interactive experiences or group exercises. 

4) Training content needs to go beyond traditional sexual harassment training and consider all of the following highly effective courses: 

  • Bystander intervention training
  • Manager training
  • Civility training that aims to promote respect and dignity in the workplace 


How to build and measure a sexual harassment training program 

Focusing on training alone is not enough to prevent and eradicate sexual harassment in the workplace. Your investment as a business needs to be thorough, showcasing a firm stance and zero tolerance towards any harassing or discriminatory behavior. 

Instead of looking at training as a standalone tactic, think about building a sexual harassment program that provides ongoing learning, centered around measurable and specific goals, and has full backing from every employee of the organization—from the senior leadership team or to the individual entry-level worker.  

Include the following: 

  • A multi-touch learning campaign incorporating not only training but other communication tactics and formats. 
  • Put a plan in place to address discrimination and power dynamics. 
  • Emphasize in your training program that not only women can be targets of sexual harassment, and that men and people who do not identify within the gender binary are also affected. 
  • Ensure leadership support as well as their full dedication to the message and holding harassers accountable for their actions.
  • Include clear goals, follow-up processes, and measurement of program effectiveness, which will also enable you to address any areas that are not working or require optimization. 


What else can organizations do to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace? 

Besides having a strong sexual harassment training program that is measurable, it would also greatly increase your chances of building a harassment-free workplace if you assessed the following additional aspects: 

  • Create an anti-harassment policy or optimize your existing one. 
  • Implement a train-the-trainer program where employees become anti-harassment champions. (Tip: You can start this today by trying LRN’s AHD training courses.)
  • Build a harassment task force that can look at HR data on harassment complaints, interview people across the company about their experience, study company data, and more.
  • Provide mental and emotional support for employees, whether this is internally by trained and qualified staff or external support.
  • Publish the numbers—if you publish data that exposes a problem, managers will focus on it, and solving the problem will become part of the culture. 


The key takeaway 

Creating a sexual harassment-free workplace is not an easy task. It requires dedication and expertise that can help you deliver effective results while remaining within budget. Don't let complacency and inaction take control of the future of your organization. Explore LRN’s award-winning and interactive anti-harassment and discrimination training now, including our course on preventing sexual harassment.