Why most sexual harassment training videos don't work

Sexual harassment tipping point: Why now?
Sexual harassment tipping point: Why now?

Many of us have been forced to watch sexual harassment training videos by our employer. We often poke fun at the over-acted scenarios, or the unrealistic "right answers."

But in the midst of a national reckoning on sexual harassment -- prompted by allegations against high-powered names like Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Al Franken and, of course, Harvey Weinstein -- advocates are calling for a closer look at the trainings that shape so many employees' understanding of workplace behavior.

Research shows that sexual harassment training may not be as effective as once thought.

Related: What should spark a sexual harassment investigation?

On the one hand, the videos, quizzes and other staples of new job orientation are good at raising employees' awareness of sexual harassment as an issue.

But on the other hand, many of the training mechanisms are shown simply as legal protection -- something an employer can point to as "we tried!" should a situation arise.

In the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's 2016 report on sexual harassment, officials stipulated that corporate attitudes toward training need an overhaul.

The commission found that "much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool -- it's been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability."

Mitch Keil, a clinical psychologist who owns his own sexual harassment training workshop, Dignity Awareness, says he sees trainings fall flat when they focus too much on definitions to heed and not enough on actions to take.

"I don't feel like I have any more tools or skills to deal with this, and it felt like more of a checking-the-box organizational thing," he says of his experience testing out trainings.

Related: Talking about #metoo with our mothers

Many of the core principles in sexual harassment training haven't been drastically overhauled in years, according to Elizabeth Tippett, associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law.

"Changes in training content over time are like software updates, periodically adding new features without fundamentally altering the nature of the training," she wrote in her research.

The EEOC's report stated that training is most effective when it's adjusted to a specific workplace and tailored to answer those questions. And as the report emphasized again and again, training "must be part of a holistic culture of non-harassment that starts at the top."

When training is treated as a second thought or a perfunctory obligation, it fails to reassure employees that the system will work, says Janine Yancey, CEO of Emtrain, a sexual harassment training company. And when employees don't have faith in the system, they may not report at all -- only contributing to the culture silencing so many already.

"Then people feel disenfranchised from HR and HR policies, and they see the policy say one thing and then people don't get fired," she says. "And they think 'These policies are meaningless, and HR is meaningless.'"

And as Tippett points out, reforming training isn't a cure-all -- "training doesn't exist in a vacuum," she says, pointing to the EEOC report's findings.

"Other things also matter a lot: the attitudes of people that come in, the employer's approach to this problem and whether the employer is taking this seriously."

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