Preventing Sexual Harassment at Work: Think ‘Turtle’

The New York Times recently published an article titled: Sexual Harassment Training Doesn’t Work. But Some Things Do. The some things that ‘do’ work include teaching bystanders to intervene. We couldn’t agree more.

Through Make It Our Business (MIOB), we have been teaching bystanders – who are often co-workers – how to recognize and respond to warning signs of domestic violence in the workplace for almost ten years. While sexual harassment is a different but related issue, the idea to engage and mobilize the majority of workers who do not engage in abusive or harassing behaviour creates a common focus. What do bystanders need to move from passive observation to pro-social activity?

What we have found with MIOB is that the majority of workers care deeply about the issue of violence in relationships. This may be because so many have had personal experience, either directly or indirectly[1]. With support that includes clear policies and committed leaders, bystanders in the workplace can make the leap to safe and effective actions.  Employers committed to change provide education and training that includes skill building.

Colleagues in a Training Session

With respect to moving the needle on sexual harassment, the NY Times article suggests that traditional “corporate training that includes clicking through a PowerPoint, checking a box that you read the employee handbook or attending a mandatory seminar at which someone lectures while attendees glance at their phones” succeeds only in “teaching basic information – workers get the knowledge they need. However it doesn’t address the root problem: preventing sexual harassment from happening in the first place.”

Sexual harassment is not a knowledge problem – it’s a behaviour problem.

The article goes on to say that “training is essential but not enough. To actually prevent harassment, companies need to create a culture in which women are treated as equals and employees treat one another with respect.” There are evidence-based ideas to create a workplace culture that rejects harassment of all kinds:

  • Empower the bystander – this equips everyone in the workplace to stop harassment instead of offering people two roles no one wants: harasser or victim.
  • Encourage civility - one problem with traditional training, researchers say, is that it teaches people what not to do — but is silent on what they should do. Civility training aims to fill that gap.
  • Train seriously and often - the most effective training, researchers say, is at least four hours, in person, interactive and tailored for the particular workplace — a restaurant’s training would differ from a law firm’s.

“We’re talking about literally generations of people getting away with abusing power...Thinking you can change that in a one-hour session is absurd. You’re not going to just order some bagels and hope it goes away.” R. Eckstein

  • Promote more women - research has continually shown that companies with more women in management have less sexual harassment. It’s partly because harassment flourishes when men are in power and women aren’t, and men feel pressure to accept other men’s sexualized behavior.

It also helps to reduce gender inequality in other ways, research shows, like paying and promoting men and women equally, and including both sexes on teams.

Business Woman Delivering Presentation

  • Encourage Reporting - most women don’t report harassment. Some don’t want to take the risk alone; fear retaliation; don’t know whom to report it to; or don’t think anything will be done. They may not want to end someone’s career — they just want to stop the behavior.

Consider rewarding managers if harassment complaints increase, at least initially, in their departments — it means employees have faith in the system. It also recommended giving dozens of people in the organization responsibility for receiving reports, to increase the odds that victims can talk to someone they’re comfortable with.

It’s true that learning to prevent sexual harassment, sexual and domestic violence in the workplace is a sea change for most organizations. Progress rests on more the strategy of the turtle than the hare – slow steady movement forward with a long view toward individual and organizational change. While this is not the speed at which most of our society operates, it is nonetheless what is required. Success is possible. What is the alternative?

Read the full article


[1] See: Prevalence rates domestic violence, sexual violence and sexual harassment: Can Work Be Safe When Home Isn’t. The Canadian Women’s Foundation. Stats Canada