7 Tips for Overcoming Resistance to Sexual Harassment Training

“I can’t wait for Monday’s sexual harassment prevention workshop!” said no one—ever.

The reality is that while employees at all levels of an organization will agree that everyone deserves to work in an environment that is free of harassment of any kind, most people dread going through training on the topic. That puts a lot of pressure on the L&D professionals tasked with selecting and deploying the training.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a state that mandates training or not, sexual harassment prevention training makes sense. It can help organizations build a more professional, productive, and respectful workplace. And organizations which promote a safe and respectful work environment generate more engaged workers, higher productivity, more creativity, and better problem-solving. That's why respectful workplaces attract and retain high-performers. 

Plus, in many states, training on sexual harassment prevention shows good faith and helps serve as a proactive measure in a lawsuit.

Selecting and delivering engaging and meaningful sexual harassment prevention training, however, can be a daunting task considering the challenges associated with the topic. Learners are more likely to retain information when they're able to relate to the content. And, training that is approached from the learner's perspective is more engaging, interesting and relevant

3 Challenges of Implementing Sexual Harassment Training

Based on a survey of our customer base, there are 3 primary challenges L&D professionals face when they try to implement sexual harassment prevention training:

  1. Learner resistance.
  2. The belief that training is unnecessary because sexual harassment isn’t a problem in their team, department, or organization.
  3. The concern that training takes employees away from their jobs.

Let’s look at each challenge.  

Challenge #1 - Learner Resistance

Let’s face it, there’s nothing intriguing, interesting, or enjoyable about the topic of sexual harassment prevention.

It’s not like customer service, which can be practical and fun, or a leadership course offering pithy insight. For some, it may even trigger painful or uncomfortable memories.

The best way to overcome learner resistance to the topic is to select a program that is engaging and memorable. That means you should select training that:

  • Is realistic and relatable
  • Addresses the topic from the learner’s perspective
  • Provides practical strategies that are easy to employ

Tip #1:  Avoid training that depicts stereotypes, clichés, or outdated, unrealistic scenarios.

Instead, select training that reflects your work environment and includes realistic scenarios that resonate with your employees. We’ve all seen examples of a male manager rubbing the shoulders of a female assistant. When learners see something so cliché, they inwardly roll their eyes and lose confidence in the content.

Tip #2: Avoid training that is extreme, melodramatic, or feels like a soap opera.

Likewise, avoid training that illustrates extreme examples as the norm. Some learners disengage from training that presents harassment as something so severe or extreme that they can’t imagine themselves or anyone they know in such a circumstance. Extreme situations happen, but learners may shut down if they can’t relate. Instead, select training that includes a variety of examples of realistic sexual harassment scenarios.

Tip #3: Select training that addresses learner protests.

Whether you realize it or not, there is a voice in your learner’s head that is talking during the training, dismissing points that are outlandish or unrealistic. Look for training that addresses what the learner may be thinking:

  • “That might work in a training course, but in ‘real life’ that’s not what would happen.”
  • “I don’t want to lose my job.”
  • “What if I’m not comfortable speaking up?”
  • “What if I didn’t mean to offend someone?”

Tip #4: Avoid training that is merely a list of do’s and don’ts or a litany of definitions.

Instead, select training that illustrates appropriate and inappropriate conduct and empowers employees to be accountable for a respectful workplace. Learner resistance sometimes comes from anticipating the boredom of sitting through do’s and don’ts, policies, and the legal definitions surrounding sexual harassment. While that needs to be part of a comprehensive training effort, sexual harassment prevention training should focus on what inappropriate behaviors and sexual misconduct look like, and how to stop them before they become illegal.

Adult learners want context: teaching them how and why it’s important is more effective than simply a list of definitions and rules.

Look for training that balances necessary policy and legal information with practical, easily-recalled instruction on how to address or report inappropriate behavior. The best courses offer “what if” scenarios that let learners assess different harassment situations and determine what steps to take. They also provide positive and constructive ways to be part of the solution, like bystander intervention strategies.

Challenge #2 - Management and employees don’t see a need for the training since sexual harassment isn’t a problem in their workplace

That may be true for your organization in the present moment. But the reality is that every time a new employee is hired, or a new delivery person, new vendor, or new customer enters your place of business, there is the potential for offensive or inappropriate conduct to occur.

It's important that your managers and employees know what to do if they witness inappropriate behaviors or sexual misconduct, or if it happens to them.

Tip #5: Select training that describes all forms of sexual harassment, inappropriate sexual or gender-based conduct, and explains what to do if they witness or experience it.

Employees don’t always understand the full scope of inappropriate workplace conduct and what is or is not sexual harassment. Be sure to choose a program that explains both quid pro quo and hostile work environment sexual harassment and all its types (including 3rd party and when you're not the target), as well as what employees should do in each instance.

Challenge #3 - The Training Takes Employees Away from Their Jobs

True. It doesn’t matter what the topic is, training takes time – and a commitment from leadership that it is important enough to take employees away from their job. The reality is that sexual harassment prevention training is necessary and, in some cases, legally mandated. Look for a comprehensive program that goes beyond awareness training, making the investment in time worthwhile and meaningful.

Tip #6: Select training that can be delivered according to the needs of your organization.

Beware of quick fixes and “check the box” training programs. Learners tune out and don’t remember a talking head’s narrative or a litany of onscreen directives. It may be cost-effective but not learner-effective.

"Free or low-cost <harassment prevention and DEI training > options can be appealing when budgets are tight. However, saving money in this way carries its own risks. Employees are increasingly vocal about negative training experiences relating to these issues, and companies can find themselves embroiled in social media crises simply by selecting a low-quality option."

American Bar Association

Instead, for the least amount of job impact, select a comprehensive sexual harassment prevention program that has flexible time and delivery options:

  • Instructor-Led Training (ILT)
    • Pros: classroom training is interactive; questions and discussion reinforce learning points, and questions can be addressed on-the-spot. Can be modified to suit organizational time constraints.
    • Cons: All employees are off their jobs at the same time; difficult to accommodate remote workers
  • eLearning
    • Pros: Employees can train at the time best for them and the organization; self-paced; employees can be at different locations 
    • Cons: Questions aren’t addressed on-the-spot
  • Blended
    • Pros: eLearning provides foundation; ILT follow-up builds on learning points, provides forum for discussion, questions are addressed on-the-spot. ILT follow-up can be modified to suit organizational time constraints.
    • Cons: If there’s too much time between online training and the ILT follow-up, retention is compromised.

Tip #7: Select training that focuses on building a culture of respect.

Make your employees’ time spent in training meaningful beyond sexual harassment awareness. A sexual harassment program that focuses on building a culture of respect reinforces desired workforce behaviors aligned with other positive workplace initiatives you might have underway, such as overcoming unconscious bias, embracing diversity and inclusion, and encouraging people to be upstanders, not bystanders.

A respectful workplace happens when learners are:

  • Inspired to rethink the way they talk and act at work
  • Are comfortable speaking up when they experience or witness inappropriate or sexual misconduct
  • Commit to working together to eliminate inappropriate (or illegal) behaviors once and for all.

In an environment built on respect, people follow the golden rule: “treat others as you want to be treated” and that is a win-win for everyone. Research shows that workplaces which build and maintain a culture of respect experience higher morale, productivity, innovation, creative thinking, and problem solving.


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Once & For All: Stopping Sexual Harassment at Work

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