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In a perfect world, every employee – and those who interact with your employees – would conduct themselves appropriately at the office. You wouldn’t need to address workplace bullying, there’d be no HR guidelines for acceptable social media posts, and no one would have to attend a sexual harassment seminar.

Sadly, though we’ve come a long way in terms of managing these types of behaviors, we can’t throw out internal training programs just yet. Experts have found that sexual harassment in particular is still pervasive – it’s just become more difficult to notice.

As defined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment includes any:

“… unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when the conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

While this definition may bring to mind especially aggressive or obvious behaviors (like those on, say, Mad Men), today sexual harassment at work can be as “subtle” as:

  • speaking in aggressive terms about someone outside the office
  • an off-hand double-entendre comment in the breakroom
  • or even a Facebook post or email that leaves room for innuendo or interpretation

The cloaked nature of these types of incidents make it difficult to recognize sexual harassment as it happens. But recent stats reveal that it’s still a widespread and pressing problem.

The Issue by the Numbers

In a 2015 survey, one in three women had experienced sexual harassment in the span of their careers and 71% of these women did not report the incident(s). Of the 29% that did report the issue, only 15% felt as though it was handled fairly.

In terms of prevalence, the EEOC revealed that just last year there were 6,862 charges filed through their organization for sexual harassment. When combined with the submissions from Fair Employment Practices agencies nationwide, the annual reports typically total in the tens of thousands per year. Around 18% of the cases in the past year were filed by men, and the plaintiffs in 2014 saw monetary benefits of $35 million (excluding monetary benefits from litigation).

With respect to the industries most affected, the fields with the highest reported levels of sexual harassment include the food and hospitality industry (42%), and retail (36%). Closely followed by STEM, arts and entertainment, and legal (at 31-30% respectively).

Needless to say, the problem of sexual harassment still exists. The real question is whether your business is prepared to be proactive, or suffer real consequences.

Repercussions for Your Business

Sexual harassment in the office isn’t just a problem for employees (causing distress and damaging a victim’s overall well-being), but it’s often the case that employers shoulder the responsibility for the behavior of the offenders.

Since the addition of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, any employer with 15 or more workers can be held responsible for sexual harassment.

What many companies don’t realize, however, is that the harasser doesn’t necessarily have to work for your company for you to be held liable. That is – depending on the situation – you may be responsible for third-party agents.

Regardless of the harasser, your company is responsible for:

  • taking all claims of sexual harassment seriously
  • escalating issues to the appropriate company channel
  • conducting an investigation, and
  • once the behavior has been confirmed, the onus is on the business to prevent it from happening again

Of course there’s also the potential cost of addressing sexual harassment claims before they go to trial. As the Fiscal Times reports, although many cases are settled pre-court:

“Federal law caps settlements for large companies at $300,000 (not including lost wages and legal fees), but state laws are often more generous to the accuser. If a judge finds egregious behavior, a seven-figure settlement is not out of the question.”

Then there are the financial costs beyond legal proceedings, including employee turnover and reduced productivity. It’s been found that 24% of victims attempt to avoid their harasser booking time away from work; 10% leave their jobs entirely.

So how can you be proactive?

The Historical Approach to Training

Education is the best way to address sexual harassment; some states are especially strict with regulations.

California, Maine, and Connecticut are currently the only 3 states requiring mandatory sexual harassment training with differing levels of specificity. Nonetheless, every state has laws against harassment in general, so training – though varied – is still strongly recommended.

The education most companies provide comes in the form of live seminars with an instructor, or courses employees can take online. Some HR departments even offer sample communication packets that senior leaders can distribute to employees. These communication packets include implementation checklists and standardized introductory emails for broaching the topic.

However, when you think of standard sexual harassment training, you think of outdated video assets. Over the years the videos used in sexual harassment training sessions earnestly attempted to showcase the subtle and not-so-subtle aspects of the issue in scenarios or skits, but many of the videos are cringe-worthy. This is not just because of the inherent tension or discomfort – but rather because the videos are notorious for poor production value, outdated cultural norms, and laughable acting.

These training videos don’t necessarily age well and are often inadvertently humorous (making them ineffective for conveying the seriousness of the issue). Unfortunately, because certain companies only provide the training on an occasional basis, new videos aren’t created and the old ones become the standard and easy to mock. Take for example the video Walter Reed Army Medical Center allegedly used to train employees up until 2010.

Updating your training material

As a preferred content format, your employees see video assets in their social news feeds daily, and have thereby come to expect it – especially in educational content.

Video helps your audience retain information, and it’s a great training method when it comes to harassment. It’s simply a matter of updating your content so that you don’t belittle or easily dismiss the issue because of an outdated script or poor video quality.

When updating (or initially creating) your library of internal training content consider that the best way to approach the issue of harassment is through a lens of empathy. Showing genuine emotion in your videos can help convey your stance on sexual harassment in a positive light to your employees.

For example, you could show employees a video full of statistics about harassment (illustrating the problem), or you could also create a video (or series of videos) in which the audience sees a scenario of an employee facing a difficult time at work as a result of sexual harassment.  

However, be mindful of the context in which you showcase the problem. That is – rather than display an employee subjected to continuous (hokey) sexual advances (as outdated training videos often depict), try to craft a compelling and empathetic story about a victim of harassment; showcasing their increasing dread or fear of coming into the office, and the legitimate reasons they feel conflicted to speak up or seek help. Perhaps the story reveals the victim can’t quit his or her job because of responsibilities in their home.

If you showcase the real consequences of the problem of sexual harassment via storytelling and maintain self-awareness while doing so, this type of training material can prompt the empathy needed to address the issue.

If you focus on telling an authentic story and remember to be empathetic in the way you tell it, your updated training material will make the impact needed.

Why DIY?

While you could outsource your HR training to a third-party organization, the barrier to entry for creating a video is lower than ever. Not only is creating your own content potentially more budget-friendly in the long run, but third-party training programs are not one-size-fits-all. Today’s workplaces have increasingly unique cultures and if a third party is unable to speak to your employees in a transparent and genuine way, you risk training irrelevancy.

Additionally, if you create the content and host it on a video hosting platform, there’s an opportunity to get feedback. That is – you can track individual employee consumption of content, which can help you determine whether employees have watched the content to its full duration, and – by association – if they’ve mastered the policies you’re trying to communicate.

For example, you could create a series of videos as part of an e-course on sexual harassment, and trigger notifications to the HR team whenever employees complete the content in full. This ensures the message gets distributed, and that you provide appropriate and comprehensive training.

With an ever-increasing focus on providing a safe environment for those you are responsible for – whether that’s employees of your organization or even attendees at your industry events – it’s important you have a plan to educate on the topic of sexual harassment.