Is sexual harassment training effective?

by L&D09 May 2016
Despite the widespread implementation of sexual harassment training and policies, the issue is still a problem for many organisations around the world.

In fact, sexual harassment in the workplace is one of the most common types of complaints received by the Australian Human Rights Commission under the Sex Discrimination Act.

Moreover, most of the victims tend to be women under 40, while the majority of perpetrators tend to be male co-workers, according to Australia's Working Without Fear: Results of the Sexual Harassment National Telephone Survey 2012.

Now, research from the University of Missouri has found worker perceptions of how sexual harassment is defined by company policy can potentially reshape or eliminate the meaning of these policies and contradict the values of the organisations who enforce them.

The study was led by Debbie Dougherty, associate dean of research and professor of organisational communication, in the MU College of Arts and Science.

The aim was to evaluate how people interpret sexual harassment policies and how they apply their personal perceptions of sexual harassment to those policies.

Despite the policy statement specifying the importance of building a culture of dignity and respect, the participants reinterpreted the policy so that they believed it actually created a culture of fear, according to Dougherty.

“This inhibits the camaraderie participants believed was produced by normalised sexual banter, behaviour and jokes,” she added.

“Our findings suggest that the ways in which employees construct meaning around the policy can preclude the usage and effectiveness of the policy; therefore, sexual harassment policy research should focus on the complex ways that our understandings shape policy meanings in order to find more effective ways to address sexual harassment in the workplace.”

The researchers concluded that organisations need to discuss their sexual harassment policies in a clear and concise way to ensure every worker has the same understanding of what is meant by sexual harassment.

Companies would also benefit from sexual harassment training that acknowledges the gender dynamics of harassment, Dougherty added.

However, sexual harassment training can potentially make it less likely that males will recognise situations that are harassing, according to Lauren Edelman, a professor of law and sociology at the University of California Berkeley.

“Sexual harassment training may provoke backlash in males,” Edelman was quoted as saying by The Guardian.

Edelman added that more research is needed on what works because it is known that sexual harassment training protects employers from liability, but it's not clear whether it protects employees.

Moreover, a study co-authored by Shereen Bingham, a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha school of communication, found that male university employees who completed training were significantly less likely to consider coercive behaviours as sexual harassment. This was compared with men who hadn’t experienced sexual harassment training.

The training involved outlining what constitutes harassment, the potential punishments of those actions and the significance of reporting it.

The research, published in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, also found that men who completed the training were less likely to report harassment. This could be because the men are in fear of a “perceived attack on them”, according to the authors.

A recent sexual harassment case in Australia involved a boss at a Melbourne law firm allegedly sending an employee lewd photos and inappropriate text messages over seven months in 2015.

In that circumstance, the employee argued that a lack of training and policies in relation to sexual harassment, discrimination, OH&S, and bullying had enabled the inappropriate behaviour towards her to continue.