A recent article from NPR entitled “Trainers, Lawyers Say Sexual Harrassment Training Fails” got me thinking about employee training programs. Specifically, every employment lawyer will advise employers to provide training for employees regarding harassment and discrimination. I would like to say that employers follow this advice in order to ensure a professional and safe workplace, but the truth is that employers provide training mostly because their lawyers advise them that training will bolster a defense in the event of a harassment claim. This cynical approach to employee training is, I think, the reason why the experts cited in the article concluded that training is not working.
Training is a “check the box” activity: the employer gets to say that it provided training, in the event of a claim. The employees are required to attend in order to keep their jobs, and so they attend and zone out. The article accuses employees of going through the motions, but employers probably are too. The lawyers told them to train, so the employer is training.
Here’s what I’ve learned: the serious offenders, those who engage in serial harassment, inappropriate relationships or even assault, are going to engage in that behavior no matter what training you provide. An employee who lacks the insight to know that certain behaviors are unacceptable (everywhere, really) will not have an epiphany during mandatory employee training. One-on-one training often helps in these situations, but not always, and not fundamentally (that is, the employee will know what to do to stay employed, but will not really care that the behavior was inappropriate).
Having said that, I want to be clear, employers should provide training – it is good risk management for certain employers. But, perhaps it should be a more sincere activity on both sides: employers should consider more interactive training, smaller groups and individualized training for departments. They should also engage in a healthy evaluation of their workplace culture prior to planning the training.
Further, if the goal is prevention of harassment, hostile work environment claims or other unacceptable workplace behaviors, training is not always the answer. Instead, employers should remember that culture comes from the top. If officers, supervisors and managers maintain professionalism, it sets the tone. It might be valuable to warn and provide one-on-one training to managers who do not demonstrate professional behavior, but in the end, appropriate workplace behavior should be a qualification for any leadership role.
No lawyer will ever advise an employer not to provide training, but perhaps it is time to be more thoughtful about what training looks like for specific employers. Avoiding litigation cannot be the only goal, or the training will never work. We can work with employers to come up with a training plan that complies with the law, and is appropriate for their business.