Why most harassment training fails and why some approaches succeed
Posted on February 19th, 2019

“Ultimately, the ‘gold standard’ for sexual harassment training is to reduce sexual harassment. To date, however, only one research study has looked at this outcome. And it found that the training was ineffective.”- Vicky J. Magley, Joanna L. Grossman, 2017

If, like me, you’re an L&D or HR professional tasked with building and maintaining effective anti-harassment training, finding out that most harassment training fails will prompt some worrying questions. Why, specifically, does it fail? What (if anything) does work? Here’s what I found out.


Why does harassment training fail?

As you’ll have guessed, there are many reasons. Let’s look at two of the biggest.

First, harassment training is often developed to limit liability in the event of an incident. This has been the case since 2008 when two U.S. Supreme Court cases determined that, for a company to avoid liability it had to show that it had trained employees on its anti-harassment policies.

To make sure this box is ticked, many companies turn to the least expensive, least time-consuming and regrettably least engaging solutions: mandatory policy reviews, dense e-learning, lengthy PowerPoint presentations, or lectures.

Second, the belief that lack of understanding of harassment must come from a lack of information, and that if training provides the missing information – what harassment is, why it’s harmful, and why it’s illegal – then behaviour will change. Unfortunately, research shows that being given more information is unlikely to change behavior.

In fact, legal or policy-based information that pigeonholes people as harassers and victims can make participants uncomfortable, prompting defensive humour, reinforcing stereotypes, even making harassment worse. Why? The very targets of harassment training may feel an identity threat, and when deep convictions are challenged, harmful beliefs sometimes get stronger.


As training fails, harassment continues.

I’ve found that my clients sometimes think that their workplaces are immune to harassment because they are already working so hard to reduce harassment. If you feel that way, too, remember that to one degree or another, we all suffer from confirmation bias and that despite your work and the efforts of the #MeToo movement, harassment continues. The stats about its impact on victims and bystanders are staggering. Global numbers vary but an Australian study revealed that:

  • As many as 6.8% of employees are currently being harassed;
  • Up to 33% of employees have been harassed; and,
  • More than half of employees have witnessed harassment.

The personal costs are high and so are business risks. Of employees who have been harassed:

  • 75% miss work;
  • 65% experience lasting impacts;
  • 50% eventually quit.

Imagine the results: decreased productivity, trust, loyalty and morale; increased illness, injury, and turnover; and public image issues. And, while there are too few conclusive studies about business  costs, common sense dictates that ongoing harassment is bad for business.


Training is only part of the solution

In the face of compelling data that points to the high cost of harassment, if you’re responsible for workplace harassment training, you need to start by thinking beyond training. Start by influencing your organizational culture.

Encourage leadership to foster a positive culture in which all everyone is treated as equal and employees treat one another with civility and respect. Support the development of a responsive culture with open and frequent communication and respect at all levels. If you can, help to develop and communicate a clear policy on harassment and keep it current.

Harassment training does not happen in a vacuum. Without an inclusive and ethical corporate culture supporting and surrounding it, workplace harassment training will almost certainly fail.


Harassment training that DOES work

If you’ve done everything you can to build the right corporate culture, one that is inclusive, ethical and civil, here’s how to build harassment training that works:

  1. Engage and involve leadership. It must be clear that from the top of the house on down harassment will not be tolerated. In fact, for best effect, all leaders must unequivocally endorse training and clarify that it is to be taken seriously. You should consider having the CEO or a senior leader kick-off each session – in person.
  2. Train in person and in depth. Online or virtual training can help you cover the basics – especially if it includes a video of the CEO that sets the standard – but the best harassment training should be at least four hours long, in-person and facilitated by a professional.
  3. Make it interactive, engaging and real-life. In addition to clarifying definitions and policies, you should include facilitated dialogue, Q&A sessions, video or better yet live demonstration, practice, roleplay and feedback. Include tough questions: What did you see? What would you do? I’ve found that after live demonstrations the same scenario will evoke different interpretations. A skilled facilitator can help people see this and build awareness of misunderstandings.
  4. Include civility training. Rude or uncivil behaviour may not be illegal, but it is the gateway to harassment. Harassment training must communicate this. Again, you can use live actors, demonstrations and roleplays to really demonstrate the importance of civility.
  5. Include bystander training. Stopping workplace harassment and breaking ongoing cycles of harassment requires changes in the behaviour of bystanders. Teach bystanders not just how to report harassment but also how and when to safely intervene and how to respond to the harasser and victim afterward. Include demonstration and roleplay on this topic. Encourage people to practice responding and measure the change in their responses. I found that the ability to respond appropriately nearly doubled after three practice activities. That kind of data is powerful proof for your stakeholders and clients.
  6. Run training frequently. Start with basic info for new hires and the follow up with an extended awareness session. Update training regularly and retrain employees routinely. If your organization is small or widely distributed, explore options for virtual, live, one-on-one training.
  7. Train managers and employees separately. Employees need to know the basics on respectful and professional behavior. They need to know where to turn if they are the victims or bystanders. The need to practice responding and reporting. Managers need to know how to end uncivil conduct, how to avoid liability, how to handle reports, the investigation process and anti-retaliation rules. They need to practice responding: reactively and proactively.
  8. Provide clear, specific examples. Avoid generalities. Address harassment in all its forms –sexual, gender-based, racial, ethnic or religious. Cover both what is unacceptable and illegal. Include and differentiate between what is severe and what is subtle. Demonstrate and practice how to respond in the moment and/or later.


You are a change agent. Whether you are a leader, an HR professional or an L&D specialist, you have a special role in reducing the incidence of workplace harassment. Now that you know why training can fail and what does work, use that knowledge to make your workplace a safer, more respectful place.

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