How to Deal with Sexual Harassment in the #metoo Era -- A New Approach

Harassment claims skyrocket:  what should employers do? 

According to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, the number of complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace is up this year, over last year, by over 2000%.  We've seen that increase first-hand as we've received many inquiries recently from employees who are suffering from sexual harassment.  This increase is likely due to the #metoo movement.  That's a good thing on balance.  No question.  Believe me when I tell you, these claims include allegations of horrifying misconduct that have resulted in distress that is almost unimaginable.  

As a result of this increase, we've been approached by a number of employers about how conducting workplace harassment trainings.  I've done these types of trainings for years and pulled out a few of my older presentations, thinking they could be modified slightly to use now.  This time, however, something felt much different.  It seemed clear to me that continuing to address sexual harassment in the same way we have in the past wasn't likely to actually make it stop, given that it's very much still occurring despite giving old-school trainings in the past.   If we expected different results, we needed to approach the problem differently.  Something about the definition of insanity rings a bell.  

A quick search on the internet confirmed these suspicions.  Apparently traditional forms of sexual harassment training (i.e. 'don't to this, it's harassment'; 'don't do this either, it's harassment') tend to present men as powerful and women as vulnerable and tend to be rejected and ignored by workplace harassers.   Certainly this isn't the desired effect of sexual harassment trainings.  Something seemed to be way off.  

The first step to changing traditional approaches to sexual harassment is to realize that traditional sexual harassment trainings aren't actually meant to end workplace harassment.  They are meant to protect employers from liability, to give them the "but we conducted training" defense if they are accused of sexual harassment.  In some cases, that's an effective defense.    But a training designed to limit liability surely would look much different from one designed to actually eliminate workplace harassment.  

The first missing piece I identified in the traditional approach was that these old-school presentations don't address the impact sexual harassment has on an employee.  These aren't jokes.  It's not funny.  Sexual harassment causes depression, identity crises, anxiety, weight gain, weight loss, and suicide.  If we educated people on how it made women feel to be sexually harassed, maybe then sexual harassment would be taken more seriously.  My sense is that if every employee was forced to listen to some of my clients describe the impact sexual harassment has had on them we'd see a significant decrease in workplace harassment.  My new presentation contains a section on this.  In fact, it leads with it.  

I then included a section on common myths.  For example, it doesn't matter if the harasser means it as a joke.  And it doesn't matter if the harassed plays along.  And it doesn't have to matter that the harassed didn't complain about the harassment.  There are many more.  I address these in my presentation and dispel them.  

I then did a bit of research on what would be more effective in terms of actually preventing workplace harassment, not just limiting employer liability.  The results there were really interesting and include encouraging reporting of sexual harassment by rewarding managers for increases in reports of sexual harassment.  Sexual harassment is happening.  Increases in reporting is a sign that women feel safe in reporting it.  That, by any measure, is a good thing.   I've included that and other ideas in my new standard presentation.  

Sexual harassment trainings, if done wrong, can actually hurt more than help.  Doing them right, however, can be an effective way to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace.  I think we can all agree that's a good thing for employers and employees alike.  If you are an employer in Pittsfield, Springfield, Worcester, Fall River, New Bedford, Lowell, the Cape or surrounding areas, click the 'Contact Us' button to the right to learn more about sexual harassment trainings.