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Sexual Harassment Training Is Largely Ineffective

Research explains what we know about harassment training and how to improve it.

123RF Stock Photo
Source: 123RF Stock Photo

More than 40 politicians, actors, news journalists and high-profile managers have stepped down from their posts in recent weeks after being accused of sexual harassment.

As a result, many employers are increasingly focused on strategies to prevent sexual harassment. The U.S. House of Representatives, for example, adopted mandatory sexual harassment training for all of its members. Five states require harassment training for all employees and an additional 22 states require training for public employees, according to the National Women’s Law Center. But does this training really work?

It turns out, there is not a large body of evidence on the effectiveness of sexual harassment training. Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission published a report written by 16 experts that detailed what we know about sexual harassment in the workplace. After a full review of the evidence, the researchers found limited evidence about the effectiveness of anti-harassment training in workplaces. (There are more studies about sexual harassment conducted in laboratory settings, but few in real-world employment sites.)

We do have evidence about what employees are learning at harassment trainings. Earlier this year, researchers at the University’s of Oregon School of Law analyzed the content of 74 different sexual harassment training curricula to find out what exactly employers are teaching their workers. The study found most training included content developed in the 1980s and 1990s, which focus on the legal aspects of harassment in the workplace and how to avoid litigation.

The limited evidence available suggests this type of training is ineffective at preventing harassment. In an early paper reporting on a series of studies conducted in the 1990s, researchers looked at trainings that had been put in place as a result of settlement agreements at two employers, a large utility organization and an agricultural business. The overall conclusion of these studies was that training did not significantly change employees’ attitudes toward sexual harassment. After the training, there was no evidence that sexual harassment decreased in those workplaces but there was an increase in complaints to human resources.

A second study conducted in 2001 evaluated an anti-harassment program at a medium-sized university. This study found that some people who attended the training demonstrated a better understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment and how to report it. Men who attended the training were more likely to say that sexual behavior at work was wrong, but they were less likely notice sexual harassment, less willing to report sexual harassment and more likely to blame the victim. A more recent analysis also found that most sexual harassment training is effective at increasing employees’ knowledge about sexual harassment, but not necessarily changing their behaviors.

What works in preventing sexual harassment behaviors?

The most recent data suggest the culture of the workplace makes a significant difference in how employees respond to harassment training. The study found that harassment training was ineffective when employees perceived their work group as unethical and when they felt cynical toward the larger work organization. But if employees perceived the employers as genuinely trying to build community and improve the work environment, they demonstrated more knowledge about sexual harassment and better attitudes after training.