New Tool Coaches Proportionate Response to Sexual Misconduct

You don’t need a sledgehammer to crack open a peanut; likewise, extreme responses to most situations are unnecessary and misguided. Yet, particularly in its early days, the #MeToo movement seemed to pose a stark choice: anyone accused of inappropriate behavior must be fired immediately or the organization harboring him—it was almost always a him—would face swift and virulent condemnation from the furious public, loss of revenue, or worse. The developer of a new learning aid suggests that a nuanced response to sexual misconduct could be more effective.

Many people who lost their jobs in a flurry of accusations of sexual misconduct may well have deserved the harsh punishment, but in other cases, good people lost their jobs, careers, and reputations in a rush to judgment. And, too often, serial harassers have remained in positions of power. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements cannot, on their own, eradicate harassing behavior in the workplace; nor can treating all offenses as if they are equally egregious.

The uniform response to an enormous variety of accusations is symptomatic of a problem that has plagued harassment-prevention training for decades: a blurred line between conduct that is illegal and conduct that, while offensive, troublesome, sexist, or discriminatory, does not actually constitute harassment or create a hostile work environment. While all of those behaviors must be addressed—and eLearning, performance support, and other training can play a key role—different responses are needed for different behaviors. Even more fundamentally, everyone, from employees to managers, perpetrators to targets, needs to understand the nuances of harassment, offensive behavior, discrimination, and bias. They also need to understand what a proportionate response is—when firing is appropriate and when a reprimand and training are sufficient consequence.

A continuum of offensive workplace behavior

The Spectrum of Sexual Misconduct at Work (SSMW) is a tool that can help employees and managers understand the continuum of inappropriate and illegal conduct and respond appropriately.

Kathleen Kelley Reardon, a professor emerita at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, created this tool “to help people define and differentiate among types of gender-based offense.” She wrote in Harvard Business Review that she intends the SSMW to serve as “a blueprint for men, women, and organizations to use in becoming familiar with levels of offense that can harm work relationships and create or perpetuate hostile work environments.”

The SSMW offers valuable guidance for eLearning designers and managers crafting anti-harassment training that addresses a broad range of actions, from level one—behaviors that seem innocuous, but, when repeated or paired with suggestive body language, can be offensive—to level six, egregious sexual misconduct. The tool describes behaviors at each level, providing examples as a jumping-off point for conversation or training development.

L&D teams—and learners—can use the examples provided, choose actual or typical scenarios from their company’s industry or actual experience, or brainstorm additional scenarios. Reardon takes pains to emphasize that:

  • Context, body language, tone of voice, and the relationship between the persons involved are all essential elements in determining where on the spectrum a behavior lands
  • Each industry and each individual workplace can adjust the “levels” of sample behaviors described and add their own examples

A key goal is to trigger conversation. The SSMW includes suggested responses to various behaviors, but, again, L&D teams, managers, and employees can create their own responses, including incorporating company policies and penalties as part of the discussion of behaviors and responses at each level. “Organizations can use it as a framework to provide training that improves work culture and lowers the risk of conflict and legal action,” Reardon wrote.

Reardon suggests bringing in a facilitator to keep discussion on track—and steer clear of blaming, shaming, and pointing fingers at individuals. Instead, the focus should remain on understanding which behaviors can be resolved with a comment on the spot, which need a more serious conversation, and when it is appropriate or necessary to bring in senior managers or human resources to address a behavior.

Bystander training can change culture

In addition to providing a framework for facilitated discussions, the SSMW could provide scenarios for eLearning, online peer discussion groups, and refresher tools that remind employees and managers of which behaviors to avoid—and how to respond when they witness problematic interactions. Reardon does not see her tool as a finished set of rules but rather as a starting point. “My goal in developing the SSMW was not to create a cut-and-dried, one-size-fits-all, static set of categories. I wanted to provide a working taxonomy that organizational teams and groups can adapt and make their own,” she wrote.

Some organizations are using the SSMW to develop and support a culture where employees feel willing and able to confront inappropriate behavior openly at the moment it happens. Providing bystander training so that employees at all levels feel more comfortable tackling small incidents—comments, jokes—can shift the culture enough that larger problems never develop.

Reardon acknowledges the potential for backlash and that many corporate cultures prefer to avoid, rather than confront, discussions of sexual misconduct. “Conflict is part of change,” she wrote. “While these conversations are no doubt challenging, they are far superior to a black hole of silence.”

An organization’s response to sexual misconduct can and should encompass employees at all levels and emphasize respectful interactions as well as avoiding obviously harassing or offensive behaviors. Learn more about where eLearning and performance support fit into a corporate strategy in Training for Diversity, a free white paper from The eLearning Guild. 

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