#MeToo. #TimesUp. A steady stream of high-profile serial abusers losing their jobs—or not losing their jobs. Backlash and counter-backlash. The movement to hold to account sexual predators—and the cultural and corporate frameworks where they operated—presents an opportunity: At the heart of all this controversy is eLearning. Mandatory sexual harassment training, to be specific. What good does it do, and where (and why) does it fail? How can it be better? A researcher studying sexual harassment training has a surprising suggestion: Reconsider the trainings’ emphasis on sexual behavior.
Whatever approach instructional designers take, a researcher who recently published a content analysis of sexual harassment trainings is convinced that now is the time to innovate. “Trainers are going to be rewarded for developing really effective content, really engaging content, really authentic content; I do think this market is about to shift—it probably already has shifted,” said Elizabeth Tippett, an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law. Tippett examined 74 trainings spanning the period from 1980 through 2016. Her study is available online and will be published in the Berkeley Journal of Employment & Labor Law in 2018.
This article examines the content and role of sexual harassment trainings, focusing on Tippett’s analysis of what the trainings do and do not accomplish and why—and how training could be reframed to be more effective. A companion article, “How to Improve Sexual Harassment Training,” offers actionable suggestions for creating better training to address workplace cultures that have permitted sexual harassment and discrimination to flourish.
The state of harassment training
Sexual harassment prevention training is big business: A 2005 San Francisco Chronicle article estimated that 1.7 million employees in California alone were required to receive periodic harassment training to comply with state law. Many states require or encourage similar training, and the legal system has embraced it (despite evidence that the training is often ineffective at reducing or preventing harassment), so the number of employees taking the training—and organizations creating and selling it—has grown since then.
The reasons that ineffective training has proliferated are multilayered, Tippett suggested in a phone interview. Issues include:
- Harassment training “appears to have solidified” into a predictable “genre” in the 1990s, according to the content that Tippett analyzed. Until #MeToo, trainers trying to be innovative were likely to encounter resistance from clients—corporate managers and HR departments: “What the employers demanded was like the meat-and-potatoes stuff—whatever was recognizable as the kind of harassment training that everyone’s done,” she said. “It sort of pushed everyone toward a sort of conformity in the market.”
- The literature on harassment training mostly addresses contrived situations—training materials created by researchers and tested in lab settings, rather than real data on trainings used with actual employees and managers. Citing this “research gap,” Tippett said, “Part of doing a better job means actually measuring the effectiveness of the trainings that are actually used in the field.”
- The lack of data could be due to a lack of interest on the parts of companies purchasing and using the training: Courts have, for decades, given employers “credit” for adopting training, regardless of impact. “The courts don’t scrutinize whether the training is effective, so the employers have no incentive to do their diligence,” she said. But, in this “cultural moment,” she said, “employers are scrutinizing these [trainings] more and thinking harder about whether they’re meeting their needs.”
- Over time, harassment training has been divorced from discrimination and diversity training—to the detriment of all. Trainings that Tippett examined generally “treated them [harassment and discrimination] as separate problems, when, in real life, they are closely intertwined,” she said. Examining and updating the content and framing of harassment in training could improve both engagement and effectiveness.
Acknowledging the “built-in challenges that trainers face” and the “limitations they face in the approach they take,” Tippett encourages instructional designers to seize the opportunity to innovate in this space.
She also raised the potential of an audience beyond mandatory workplace harassment training. “There are aspects of this whole market that are educational. There is a public service/public health component to this. And maybe there is a market for this, beyond just employers, that is consumer-facing, that is educating people,” she said. “In the same way that anti-smoking commercials are directed right at the consumer, there might be a place for that, too” in combating harassment and discrimination.
A predictable genre
Sexual harassment prevention training really came into vogue after the EEOC, in 1980, issued guidelines defining harassment in terms of sexual conduct. The training that emerged then “focused on legal concepts and analysis relating to sexual conduct,” according to Tippett’s paper. Since then, “the way the trainings are framed is a little bit different, but a lot of the content is the same,” Tippett said. “Most of the examples and illustrations in recent trainings continue to relate to sexual conduct.”
This is true despite changes in social and legal trends and suggesting that trainings should focus on harassment based on status—for example, race, gender, or religion, Tippett wrote. Even when newer trainings address these status issues, she found, they add the content rather than revising and refocusing the training.
Since the 1990s, typical harassment trainings include an authority figure summarizing legal rules, providing examples, and offering advice on how to behave. “The genre has proven remarkably durable, with few trainings departing from the format, even in interactive online trainings and on YouTube,” she wrote.
Emphasis shifts from personal agency to corporate interests
What has changed, Tippett said, is how harassment is framed and how employees are advised to respond to harassment.
Both historical and current trainings cast harassment “as a business problem—a productivity drain, morale killer, and source of litigation costs,” Tippett wrote. In addition, older trainings emphasized the abuse of power and tricky power dynamics at the root of much harassment.
“The power-based frame is largely absent in more recent trainings, subsumed by the business justification,” Tippett wrote, suggesting that this could harm learner engagement. Current framing, which suggests that harassment is bad because it is bad for business—rather than because it is discriminatory or just plain wrong—“may not ultimately be persuasive to employees.”
The tendency to hew closely to corporate interests also shows up in the way trainings advise supervisors and victims to respond to harassing behavior. In the earliest trainings, Tippett said, “at the end, they’d be like, ‘If you’ve been harassed, create a personal record,’ or they’d say ‘Call the EEOC’ or ‘Call a lawyer.’ They don’t do that anymore.”
Victims are now advised to go through corporate channels, such as the human resources department, Tippett said. And, while talking to supervisors is still advised, the supervisors’ function is cast as recording the complaint and referring it to human resources—unlike in earlier trainings, where a supervisor “was instructed to intervene, investigate, and also to take corrective action in response to the complaint.”
What IS harassment?
While past and current trainings share a focus on sexual misconduct, Tippett notes a troubling shift, saying that recent content could actually interfere with employees’ understanding of which behaviors are legally problematic. In more recent trainings, “A substantial portion of examples trainers use, involving sexual comments, jokes, and emails, represent borderline conduct that may not constitute harassment. Trainers do not always provide an explanation of whether the conduct would qualify as harassment, which may lead participants to infer that such conduct would be strictly prohibited,” she wrote.
Tippett attributes this shift to a dilemma that corporate clients create for instructional designers. “The legal requirements for what is harassment [are] very high, but employers want to intervene earlier—before [behavior] meets the legal threshold, for a lot of reasons. So the dilemma for a trainer is: How do you convey that?
“One of the ways I think trainers have decided to address this is to just sort of gloss over the actual legal rules and make it sound as though the law prohibits everything—which is problematic in other respects: They portray the law as overly complex, and then people think that the law is impossible to understand,” she said. “They think that everything is harassment—and that may disserve us in other ways. For example, people might be afraid of interacting with people who are different from them because they think they will inadvertently harass them. And that can be a problem when you think about access to equal employment opportunities because we need to interact with other people in order to provide opportunities for advancement. You need to take people out to lunch. If you’re in an industry that relies heavily on entertaining clients, you need to give everybody access to those client opportunities. So if you’re so terrified of harassment that you don’t provide those to everyone, that’s a discrimination problem,” she said.
Returning to the dilemma instructional designers face, Tippett said, “We have to think really hard about how [we] are going to frame what harassment is to the audience. In an honest way, I think, that also treats the inclusion and discrimination component of this wider problem.”
Wrong emphasis could devalue training
Cautioning employees about behavior that, while boorish or obnoxious, is not legally actionable could have a hidden cost beyond discouraging collegial interaction: “By decoupling harassment from discrimination, and focusing heavily on sexual conduct, the prohibition on harassment loses much of its moral force,” Tippett wrote. “Unless trainings explain that sexual conduct is problematic where it operates through the power and authority of supervisors, employees may start to question the value of both the employer’s prohibition, the underlying legal rules, and the training itself.”
Ending our conversation on an optimistic note, Tippett raised ideas that both capitalize on eLearning trends and could improve harassment training:
- Use data to measure and improve the efficacy of training
- Take a more personalized approach, even “designing trainings around differences in employee attitudes, beliefs, or self-reported behavior”
- Use more authentic content—examples and testimonials, rather than scripted simulations around exaggerated or caricatured behavior
“For me, the larger message is not necessarily that we should go back to the way trainings used to be framed. I think what we should focus on is: How do we design these trainings in a way that is persuasive to people today? And that may not be a message about power,” Tippett said. “How do we set up these trainings so that they are authentic and engaging and persuasive?”
“How to Improve Sexual Harassment Training” offers suggestions on how to do this—while also addressing underlying cultural issues that allow harassing behavior to continue.
Bisom-Rapp, Susan. “Fixing Watches with Sledgehammers: The Questionable Embrace of Employee Sexual Harassment Training by the Legal Profession.” University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review, Vol. 24, No. 1. 2001.
DeBare, Ilana. “The cost of compliance / Sexual harassment training becomes a lucrative business.” SFGATE. 28 October 2005.
Tippett, Elizabeth. “Harassment Trainings: A Content Analysis.” Berkeley Journal of Employment & Labor Law (forthcoming). 2018.