Designing an Engaging Workplace Harassment Training

Sexual Harassment, Workplace, Training, Policy

When I recently brought up mandatory harassment training for supervisory employees in my workplace, I heard people say, “Didn’t I just do that last year?” I knew that I was going to be facing a tough crowd when I did my presentations. Even I was doubtful I’d be able to provide an engaging presentation. I’ve been doing harassment training since 2005, so I was also getting tired of repetitive presentations that relied heavily on videos and the same, tired harassment scenarios.

Employers Are Required to Provide Workplace Harassment (Including Sexual) Training to Supervisors

Since 2005, employers in California who have 50 or more employees must provide harassment training to supervisory employees. Other states have similar requirements or recommendations. Regardless of your state’s requirements, providing a solid harassment training program for supervisory employees can go a long way to preventing and quickly remedying harassment situations in the workplace.

So, with the challenge of an audience and a presenter who were tired of repetitive harassment training, I set out to design something that would engage participants and keep me interested enough to want to do multiple presentations. My presentation was made up of three pieces: a review of the basics, real world harassment scenarios and a chance for participants to interact and share their ideas.

Don’t forget the basics

Even if your feel like your participants have of a good grasp on harassment basics, it’s important to build your presentation around the familiar terms and concepts. Never forget to cover things like the definitions of quid pro quo, hostile work environment, the reasonable person standard, retaliation and other well-known harassment terminology. For most supervisory employees this will be review. The key is to give them a chance to apply their knowledge.

Draw from what you know

My experience comes from the retail industry and the distribution/manufacturing industry. A lot of what I’ve seen involves inappropriate jokes, comments and texts. These are the kind of situations without an easy answer, and they tend to be situations where supervisors often don’t know if they need to contact HR. For your training, start by evaluating what types of harassment situations come up in your workplace. What are the issues common to your industry? Change confidential information and combine stories as necessary to avoid revealing sensitive information, but draw from experience. Talk to your colleagues in HR to find out what types of situations they have investigated in the workplace.

Video scenarios I used in my old trainings included things like a manager who offers a promotion in exchange for a romantic evening in his hot tub or an employee who is repeatedly subjected to sexual comments from a coworker. Unfortunately, these things still happen, but they are easy to recognize and are not as common as other harassment situations I have dealt with in the workplace.

Let your participants do some of the talking

Once you have your scenarios, incorporate them into your presentation. Start with a review of the concept, give a scenario, and then divide your participants into groups to discuss how they might handle the situation. When you talk about quid pro quo harassment, don’t resort to the hot tub example I used above. Suppose a manager is hanging out with you after work. She mentions that she has started a relationship with one of the employees she supervises. She asks you to keep it confidential. What do you do? Give your participants about five minutes to come up with some possible answers before they return to the whole group to share their responses. Listen to what participants say, and avoid the temptation to jump in too quickly to say how things should be handled from an HR perspective. Once groups have finished sharing, you can tie things together and address questions or issues that came up.

When you are reviewing hostile work environment, try this example that many of us have probably dealt with a number of times. You regularly hear employees making sexual jokes. It never happens when customers are around, and everyone seems to laugh. Do you need to address it? If so, how? When I used this example in my training, my participants had a lot to say and even shared how they conducted department meetings to talk about hostile work environment.

Aside from giving your participants a chance to think through challenging situations, you are also allowing them to draw from their own experience in the workplace and recognizing that they have some expertise in managing people. We’re there to help them recognize and navigate the tricky situations by providing them the necessary tools and support.

In the end…

When I started using scenarios that were more true to the everyday challenges faced by supervisory employees, I noticed that participants would refer back to the examples months after they attended training. This didn’t happen when I used the same old video examples. In addition, I had more people following up with me in the days and even months following training. They wanted to ask about specific situations they had experienced, and they often related these situations back to something they heard in the training. I now look forward to my harassment trainings. Even though I cover the same basics, the responses to my scenarios vary and create a different training each time.

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Stephanie Hammerwold

Stephanie Hammerwold, is the founder and director of Pacific Reentry Career Services, a Southern California nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated women find and maintain employment. She also blogs on a variety of HR topics as the HR Hammer. When not volunteering for her nonprofit, Stephanie has a day job in HR at a tech startup in Irvine, CA.


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