Back in 2004, California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Assembly Bill 1825 into law. This new law mandated companies in the state with 50 or more workers to train their supervisors on sexual harassment prevention every two years. While there was a certain irony that the “Gropenator,” (as the media dubbed the former governor for allegations of groping women in the decades leading to his election in 2003), supported this landmark legislation, it has improved workplaces of all kinds in California.
Rather than creating sterile, antiseptic offices free of laughter, friendship, and camaraderie, sexual harassment prevention training educates everyone about what is considered improper conduct. And it can be fun and generate goodwill. In addition, it raises awareness and encourages people to speak up when uncomfortable, nipping inappropriate behavior in the bud before it can cost your company a lawsuit. A respectful workplace enhances productivity while decreasing sick days and employee turnover. In terms of human dynamics, stress and tension levels are ratcheted down, and employees are generally more relaxed and focused.
Federal law prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace. Many, but not all, states mandate regular education and training of supervisors and/or workers. Employment Knowledge Online has an excellent state-by-state summary of laws and requirements. Knowing if your company complies with state law is your responsibility.
Company-Wide Training Best
Showing that clear, concise information regarding the law and company policies was communicated to employees goes a long way in terms of minimizing liability for a company. In a court of law, organizations are held accountable for the behaviors of their workers. Financial ramifications of a sexual harassment lawsuit could include monetary settlements, compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorneys’ fees (both the company’s and the complainant’s), and injunctive relief (i.e., six hours or more of training for all management personnel).
As for the type of training one chooses, that would very much depend on the culture of the company. Professional speakers, videos, online training, and HR-led sessions are all popular choices. Formal, company-wide training of both workers and managers is the best way to make sure everyone is on the same page about what is and isn’t appropriate behavior while on the job.
As the owner of a company that uses professional, theater-based programs to educate about sexual harassment, I believe that the choice of training can also reflect the company’s commitment to a harassment-free workplace. Simply putting up a poster in the break room, or having employees take an online course may comply with the law, but risks the appearance of a laissez-faire attitude. Live sessions that are fun, informative, and, most importantly, encourage participation are the ones that truly make the difference. When employees speak up, ask questions, and understand the personal and professional consequences of harassment, they are actively engaged in the process and become part of the solution.
What Should be Covered
A one to two-hour session (depending on state mandates) can cover the needed information and ensure that employees are kept fully engaged and interested.
Whatever training program you choose, it should include the following;
- Trainers with experience in sexual harassment education and prevention (ask for references); or state-certified online/video courses
- Information and guidance regarding state and federal provisions concerning sexual harassment
- Illustrations of the type of conduct prohibited
- Guidelines on how to prevent and correct sexual harassment, including practical remedies
available to victims
- Examples of how to deal with harassment, for both individuals and managers
- Explanations of the consequences of retaliation. Victims fear that if they make a complaint, the perpetrator, or the company will punish them. It takes courage to come forward and to know that there is zero tolerance of retaliation is reassuring
A small investment in training can save a company thousands, and sometimes millions, of dollars in settlements and legal fees. A subtle but equally important, outcome is the sense of goodwill that training can generate. Knowing that your employer insists upon respect and dignity for ALL of their workers can be a huge relief and create a healthy, more productive environment for all.
Tips for a Harassment-Free Workplace
- Educate and Raise Awareness: Do your employees know what can constitute sexual harassment?
- Show You’re Serious: Model and reinforce a zero tolerance approach to harassment. The more serious you take it, the more likely employees will too.
- Empower Employees: Let them know that it’s okay to tell someone that their behavior is inappropriate.
- Make the Message Simple: Use a catch phrase such as, “If you wouldn’t say it or do it in front of your mother, don’t say it or do it here.”
- Be Proactive: Make employees feel safe to come forward and report incidences of sexual harassment. Make sure managers know they must consult with HR when informed of any of this kind of behavior.
- Retaliation Will Not Be Tolerated: Show that retaliation towards an individual for making a “good faith” harassment report will be taken as seriously as the harassment itself.
- Stand On Principles: Remind everyone that it’s not just about lawsuits. We have an ethical and moral responsibility to treat ALL people with professionalism and respect.
- Stay in Compliance: Stay current with training. Don’t forget that some states require newly promoted supervisors to have training within six months (California and Connecticut).
Disclaimer: for information purposes only, not to be taken as legal advice.
Cynthia Cristilli is the founder and executive director of the Emmy Award-winning training company, Life Theatre Services. Life Theatre has delivered drama based anti-harassment training for more than 18 years to organizations such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Stanford University, and Kaiser Permanente, among others.