How Sexual Harassment Training Misses the Mark

Businessman Sexually Harassing Female ColleagueThe rapid fall of Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes this summer amidst multiple sexual harassment claims has once again brought this diciest of workplace issues to the forefront. Ailes certainly isn’t the first high-profile leader felled by sex harassment charges, but he was right at the top in terms of power.

So what can your company do to ensure it’s not the next story on the evening news? Having a strict written policy coupled with training can be a step in the right direction.

But far too often much of the training that employers offer is ineffectual, according to Stephen Paskoff, founder of the Atlanta-based workplace training and learning company ELI.

On my latest XpertHR podcast, Paskoff said, “Too many organizations take a cosmetic approach rather than one that recognizes this issue requires ongoing maintenance, regular attention.” He explained further, “A lot of the training that’s offered is designed inadvertently to build legal defenses rather than to change behavior.”

Three states mandate sexual harassment training by private employers:

  • California;
  • Connecticut; and
  • Maine.

But in noting that the training is far from a panacea, Paskoff points out that each of those states continues to have sexual harassment issues arise from time to time. “Training is important, but once-a-year training that you can click through to check a box won’t materially affect this problem,” he said. So with that sobering thought, what’s a well-meaning employer to do?

Paskoff suggests that the key is always at the top because policies and trainings are only as good as the people carrying them out. He explains, “You need leaders who behave in a way that aligns with the values that are presumably driving the training, who talk about the importance of professional, inclusive, non-harassing behavior as part of their jobs—and not as quasi-lawyers—and who intercede when problems are brought to them that they witness or hear about and who encourage people to come forward.”

Paskoff brings a unique perspective to the issue, having worked as an EEOC trial attorney prior to defending employers, which he did for a decade before forming ELI. “What’s needed is someone who says we can’t allow that. That’s not who we are,” said Paskoff. He asserts that too many executives look at sexual harassment as a personal issue rather than an institutional concern.

Speaking generally of harassment complaints against Ailes and other well-known figures, Paskoff notes that the hardest part is coming forward. At Fox News, it took former TV anchor Gretchen Carlson to spark the investigation into Ailes’ behavior. Would it have been the same result had a makeup artist or production assistant gone public first?

Paskoff acknowledges there were women who were fearful of coming forward at Fox News and did not do so. But he adds, “A senior leader is invulnerable until he or she is not. Once you uncover several others who have gone through something similar and are willing to go public, the dynamic changes very quickly.”

For more insights from Paskoff about how an organization can truly change its culture and make clear that it takes sexual harassment seriously—not just in words but in deeds—listen to this XpertHR podcast, “Why Sexual Harassment Training Needs a Reboot.”

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