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Are Online Sexual Harassment Prevention Courses the Answer?

By Cait Etherington
January 20, 2018

As organizations scramble to respond to rising concerns about sexual harassment, online sexual harassment prevention training courses are gaining traction. But do these courses, typically comprised of a series of slides and a few quizzes, actually have an impact on reducing sexual harassment, and if so, should both male and female employees be asked to complete the same course?

Typical Online Sexual Harassment Prevention Courses

On average, online sexual harassment prevention courses are a one-time offering comprised of 50 to 100 slides that can be completed in approximately 45 minutes to one hour. While these courses do often effectively share information about an organization’s polices on sexual harassment and may offer scenario training, they tend to be geared to a general rather than specific audience. A senior-level male manager, however, may require a very different course than a young female receptionist. Also, these one-size-fits-all courses tend to focus on typical rather than more nuanced and more complex situations.  This may be due to the fact that they often fail to account for specific organizational situations. After all, how sexual harassment is experienced and reported at a college or university will likely differ significantly from the way such behaviors are experienced and reported in a large finance institution. Other factors, such as the scale of an organization (for example, a family business versus large enterprise) may also impact both the nature of the harassment and reporting practices.

The Downside of Sexual Harassment Training

If online sexual harassment prevention training is not necessarily the answer, the real issue may not be the format but rather the curriculum. A 2017 study carried out by the Association for Talent Development found that 71% of organizations now offer some form of anti-sexual harassment training. However, as Dr. Eden King, an associate professor at Rice University, recently told Time, because so many of these courses focus on compliance, they frequently fail to address the real problem: “Learning about a law may not actually change anybody’s behavior. It’s really the behavior or the culture that we want to change.”

More disturbing, however, are the findings of a recent study published in the Harvard Business Review. Men who are found likely to harass women reportedly leave trainings certain that harassment is not an issue. Indeed, as Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalex explain: “At the organizational level, our latest (unpublished) research shows that anti-harassment training for managers does lead to increases in women in both management and nonmanagement roles.” However, they add, “At the individual level, findings are mixed. Though most people who undergo training are better able to define and recognize harassment and to intervene, that’s not true of everyone. Men who score high on a psychological scale for likelihood to harass women come out of training with significantly worse attitudes toward harassment, thinking it is no big deal. The received wisdom is that you have to get the worst offenders in the room for training. But it turns out that can aggravate the problem.”

Reevaluating the Solutions

If men prone to harassment frequently use anti-sexual harassment training to simply become better at justifying or hiding their behavior, should such trainings be gender specific?  This is a controversial topic. What’s clear is that targeted training is certainly easier online than in person. But increasingly, there is reason to believe that training, online or off, is not a stand-alone answer. The real issue is power and leaderships.

Organizations are hierarchies and empirical studies suggest that the more power one has, the more likely one is to abuse it. There is also substantial evidence that sexual harassment is more likely to occur when leaders knowingly condone the behavior by tolerating it. When someone is put on leave with pay after a sexual harassment accusation, for example, the organization and leader are endorsing the accused employee’s behavior. As such, while training may play a role, solid leadership may ultimately prove more effective.