Sexual Harassment Training in the #MeToo Era

Since the viral #MeToo movement began, more and more women have found the courage to speak out about sexual harassment and assault, and demand change to the way we all perceive gender and power dynamics. Men, too, seem to be open, listening, and engaging in self-reflection. Although we still have much more work to do when it comes to bringing an end to sexual harassment and discrimination, the movement has created a much-needed surge of empowerment that is changing the way we all interact and do business.

This has important implications for employers and workplaces of all kinds. Laws and regulations are evolving, and some states now require annual anti-harassment training for all employees.

For 25 years, I’ve developed and presented a wide range of sexual-harassment prevention trainings through my organization, Life Theatre Services. As I’ve watched the #MeToo movement unfold, I’ve witnessed a dramatic shift in cultural conversations around issues like consent, behavior, language, and power dynamics. As a result, the tolerance for what people once dismissed as “bad behavior” has vastly diminished. Employees who are subject to harassment and/or discrimination have far more recourse today than they once had.

With that in mind, I’d like to share three vital points for business owners, managers, and employees to consider in this age of reckoning.

1. Know the law.

At the federal level, sexual harassment is a form of discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. Individual states often go a step further in offering protection to workers by including anti-harassment laws in state statutes. To date, only Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi have not included these measures in their written laws.

Individual state laws reflect federal law, with some variations. A key difference from state to state entails requirements for anti-harassment training. California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, and New York are currently the only states that require non-governmental employees to be trained in harassment prevention. Until recently, most mandated trainings were restricted to supervisory personnel once every two years. New York and California (starting in 2020) require annual training for more categories of businesses and employees (CA law now applies to all businesses with five or more employees, while NY mandates training for “all full-time and part-time employees, seasonal employees and temporary employees”).

As this area of the law rapidly evolves, it’s essential for every employer to stay current and remain familiar with their state’s statutes regarding sexual harassment. If you’re not sure of your state’s requirements, start by Googling your state and the terms “sexual harassment law.”

In many states, supervisors and colleagues can be held personally liable for their own sexual misconduct. Unlike Title VII, which only holds the employer liable for sexual harassment by a supervisor, individuals can be sued for their own acts of harassment in the workplace under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, for example.

It’s also important to be aware of what is referred to as “third party” harassment. An employee doesn’t necessarily have to be the direct victim of inappropriate behavior to suffer trauma or be made uncomfortable. Sexualized or inappropriate banter can offend other employees, even if it’s not directed at them. In addition, your company is liable if a client, customer, vendor or contractor harasses a member of your staff. Supervisors and HR are still responsible for investigating and rectifying the situation.

2. Have a well-crafted and clear policy.

Make sure your anti-sexual harassment policy is well crafted, clearly stated, and understood by every employee, manager, and contractor. Communicate that without exception, sexual harassment will not be permitted in any shape or form. Policies should include a clear assurance that employees who make complaints, and others who participate in investigations, will be protected against retaliation. Sadly, retaliation and sexual harassment are closely intertwined. Prohibiting sexual harassment but then punishing those who have the courage to come forward is not only unethical but in many states, including California, it’s also against the law.  As well, it should also be made clear that each sexual harassment complaint will be reviewed on an individual basis, with all pertinent circumstances taken into account.

Although federal law maintains that behaviors must be severe or pervasive in order to constitute harassment, most organizations have–or should have–a much lower tolerance for harassment than the legal threshold if they want a culture based on mutual respect and collaboration. Sexual harassment, without question, violates those principles and companies should be proactive and address issues as soon as they occur.

Your human resources staff should know your harassment policies inside and out; but, it’s equally important for supervisors to fully understand your rules and regulations regarding what is and isn’t inappropriate behavior. Since supervisors generally know their teams better than HR, they should be on the alert for unhealthy dynamics among staffers and report any incidents of sexual harassment issue directly to HR, rather than trying to “fix it” themselves.

Supervisors and managers should also be aware of their own behavior, language, and unconscious bias. The power differential in supervising means that communication or comments—regardless of how innocently they’re intended—can be perceived differently.

3. Provide effective training & foster bystander intervention.

Though online courses can be an efficient way to comply with sexual harassment training requirements, live trainings facilitated by a subject-matter expert boost understanding and retention. Staff members can learn from their peers through sharing thoughts, experiences, and strategies. These sessions can also be a team-building exercise in many cases.

A key component of anti-harassment education is teaching employees the power of bystander intervention—because sometimes just a few words from a colleague can stop harassment in its tracks.

A June 2016 EEOC task force study of sexual harassment in the workplace concluded that bystander intervention can create awareness of problematic behaviors while building a mentality of collective responsibility within the workforce. Endorsing the motto “see something, say something, do something” creates a sense of empowerment for employees. It provides staff with the confidence to intervene as appropriate and demonstrates an employer’s commitment to a principled work environment.

Actively promoting a harassment-free workplace provides enormous benefits for employers and employees alike, both personally and professionally. Your organization’s unambiguous commitment to a healthy work environment allows all staffers to feel valued and empowered, which naturally translates to higher morale and productivity. When you remove the threat of toxic or inappropriate interpersonal dynamics, your employees are free to accomplish what you hired them to do—their very best work.

Additional Resources

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Information about federal laws, for organizations and individuals.

California Department of Fair Employment and Housing: State-level agency charged with protecting the people of California from unlawful discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. Each state has its own commission, which can be found by searching online.

New York State: Every employer in New York state is required to have a sexual harassment prevention policy. Resources for Individuals: Advice, information, and support for harassment survivors and for anyone who wants to help.

MeToo Movement: Founded in 2006 to help survivors of sexual violence, particularly Black women and girls, this now global movement provides resources for survivors and community advocates at the forefront of creating solutions to end sexual violence.

Cynthia Cristilli is founder and executive director of Emmy Award-winning Life Theatre Services. For the past 25 years she has used professional actors, cutting edge scripts and interactive discussions to examine workplace human dynamics. She is a subject matter expert on topics including sexual harassment and unconscious bias.

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