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Rethinking Harassment Training: What Comes After #MeToo?

by Ann Allsopp and Kirsten Liston

Victims are speaking up. Social attitudes have changed. Powerful offenders have been fired. But what does the #metoo movement mean for our workplaces? How can a company respond in a meaningful way?

If you’re like many of the compliance professionals we’ve talked to, you may be struggling to answer that question.

It’s a tough one.

When our clients first started asking us what we were doing about #metoo, we didn’t hesitate to offer our favorite solution: great content, of course! Engaging training. Sharp videos. A clear communication campaign. These are our go-to recommendations, because they work.

But great communication starts with a clear idea, and many companies have been anything but clear in their anti-harassment messaging. Sure, your policy states harassment isn’t tolerated, but what is the company’s position or point of view on it? What kinds of messages are leaders sending with their behavior? What does your company culture dictate?

As a company of women with our own #metoo stories, this is a topic close to our hearts, and it didn’t take us long to figure out that the old messages about harassment wouldn’t cut it. As one client told us, given the many powerful figures toppled by harassment allegations, it feels like there’s been a shift in the overall tone. “This isn’t just a trend or a swing to one side of the pendulum,” she said.

This is real change.

So we set up a working group and dove in. We started with research: What’s really going on when someone harasses a coworker? What are the social dynamics in play, and how can we use them to create change? What tactics have worked in education or non-profits, and how can we apply them to business? (Side note: If you’re interested in our research, check out the links under “Further Reading & Resources” below.)

The answers led us to a big conclusion:

Harassment is a culture issue.

It may not surprise you to read that. After all, compliance professionals have been grappling with how to drive culture change for a while now.

 

But many companies fall into the trap of talking about cultural change without actually making any. And, hey—we’re not pointing fingers. We know cultural change is hard.

 

But, in our view, attempts to address harassment really reveal the limits of a defensibility-only approach.

 

No one cares if Harvey Weinstein took the annual anti-harassment training course—they care about how the company responded to his actions. They care about the work environment that deemed his actions acceptable in the first place.

 

We’ve concluded that, to address workplace harassment, you need to do more than just communicate policies or police behavior.

 

You have to develop a program that can change the community norms: take on the damaging ones, reinforce positive ones, and empower employees to speak up.

So we created our Rethink Harassment Toolkit to help companies do just that.

Why a toolkit? Because different companies have different goals and different audiences, and one size does not fit all—especially when your goal is effectiveness and culture change.

So we created a starting point: a point of view on what works, and a selection of ready-made building blocks for an effective anti-harassment program. We help clients design the right program for their audience and their goals, and then customize the training and communication products to help them get there.

Rethinking Harassment

We built our toolkit on the following key principles:

1. Listen before you teach.

Too often, compliance programs just broadcast out information. But if you want your audience to engage, it's critical to meet them where they are.

This is why our toolkit includes the option to deploy a survey and then channel some of that feedback back to your audience.

On a sensitive topic like harassment, it can help to get a sense of your audience’s attitudes and experience before you begin training them. Done right, you can even use this to create the feeling of a two-way conversation, positioning any future training or communications as a direct response: “We heard you, and here is how we’re going to address what we’ve learned.”

2. Reflect your audience’s reality.

We believe one-size-fits-all training misses the mark—especially when it comes to a personal and sensitive topic like harassment.

To really engage your audience, you need to think like a marketer and talk to your employees in your voice about your specific risks and culture.

We’re biased, but we think the ability to customize your training and messaging is critical here. We also think it’s important to use modern tools and communication techniques so employees know you’re thinking about this now.

3. Focus on the whole organization, not just offenders or targets.

Our research turned up a fascinating New York Times article called “Sexual Harassment Training Doesn’t Work. But Some Things Do.”

As the article explains, due to a phenomenon called “identity threat reaction,” the employees who are most likely to be harassers are the least likely to benefit from traditional anti-harassment training. Why? People don’t identify with the labels “harasser” or “victim,” so they don’t believe the training applies to them.
The solution? Empower bystanders.

Not everyone has been a harasser or target, but nearly everyone has witnessed harassment. That’s why several elements in our toolkit speak directly to bystanders, including the "Don't Stand By" video below that we created in partnership with viral video artist Gary Turk. We position culture as something we’re all responsible for, so we all have a responsibility to speak up or interrupt harassment if it happens.

4. Connect multiple times.

When we talk about “culture,” we’re really talking about attitudes and behaviors that have been ingrained over time—years, or even decades. You can’t erase those cultural norms in a one-off, 40-minute training session.​

Our toolkit gives you elements to deploy over time—so employees recognize this is a real, substantial shift, and not something that will go away if they just ignore it. Training gets the ball rolling, but it’s the regular touchpoints—the posters in the break room, the Q&A on Slack, the talking points employees hear every week from their managers—that remind employees that this is a real and permanent change.

5. Show top-down support and follow through.

​Employees know the difference between corporate window dressing and a true and significant shift in direction.

Many of these steps—like messages from key leaders, or making sure that harassment reports are properly investigated and dealt with—are outside the realm of a compliance training program. But we support these through products like our manager toolkit, which equips managers to help prevent or respond to harassment—and to avoid engaging in it themselves.

It’s also why we created a media-rich “Real Cases, Real Consequences” module, so that companies can quickly and easily create anonymized case studies of real cases at the company—and real consequences for offenders.

It takes time and patience to create real cultural change, but we can help you get there. If you’re interested in learning more about our Rethink Harassment Toolkit, visit http://www.rethinkharassment.com/ or contact us for a free consultation.

Further Reading & Resources:

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