The role of L&D in preventing workplace harassment

Let’s get two things straight right away—

  1. Workplace harassment is by no means just a training problem. It’s a MUCH bigger issue as related to workplace culture AND society in general and CANNOT be solved by training.
  2. I’m not an expert in workplace harassment. But, I have spent most of my professional life in frontline operations and HR (human resources). So, I have personal experience with the issue from multiple perspectives that informs my ideas in this post.

Harassment is a reality in any workplace. While Hollywood is dominating the headlines right now, my hope is that the discussion exposes the problematic conditions too many employees face on the job, every day, in a variety of industries and settings. Rather than repeat the numbers that demonstrate just how pervasive this issue is or attempt to tackle the considerable problems that underlie it, I’m going to explore just one part of the overall puzzle in this post.


What is the role of L&D in preventing workplace harassment?

Everyone must contribute to making the workplace a safe, respectful and productive environment for all employees. Therefore, L&D (learning and development)—whether it’s part of HR or embedded within the operation—must step up and be sure it’s doing its part. We must reflect on our existing practices to figure out what’s working and where gaps exist. And, just as we often discuss with topics like product knowledge, safety, and customer service, we must modernize our approach to meet the needs and challenges of today’s workplace.

Here are four suggestions for improving L&D practices related to workplace harassment:

Focus on Awareness

A mountain of factors inform human behavior. An employee’s decision to mistreat another employee is an extremely complex matter. Therefore, L&D cannot hope to eliminate workplace harassment through training. Rather, the focus must be on driving consistent, practical awareness of the topic. This ensures employees are making informed decisions, whether they are ultimately right or wrong.

Training must be designed to expose employees to what harassment can actually look like in the workplace. By no means can L&D cover every potential situation, but we must do our best to bring the policy to life through practical examples. After all, we don’t know what was deemed acceptable in the employee’s past environments. Therefore, we must make it clear what will be deemed OK and NOT OK when it comes to employee treatment within this organization.

Make it Real

Today’s harassment training is ineffective in large part because it is built to teach a cookie-cutter policy, not inform ongoing behavior. Content is filled with vague what-ifs and legalese that don’t reflect the true look and feel of harassment. L&D often makes this worse by introducing gimmicks like juvenile stories and cartoonish animation to make it more “engaging.” As with any other workplace topic, engagement should be derived by value to the employee—not by meaningless design flourishes meant to hide boring and irrelevant content.

Workplace harassment is a human topic. It’s about how people relate to one another. All related discussion must be honest and real in order to evoke the reactions and emotions necessary to drive the desired behaviors. We cannot be afraid to speak frankly about the language and actions that accompany harassment behavior. Stories are critical, but they must be REAL stories from actual people who have had these experiences—not generic avatars and third person narrators. Classroom sessions could include guest speakers sharing the perspectives of both the victim and harasser. Online content can recreate this sharing through video but should also include opportunities for additional open discussion, preferably in a real-time setting.

Reposition and Reinforce

Harassment represents perhaps the worst of compliance training in the workplace. The topic usually comes up in three specific instances:

  1. First day of onboarding
  2. Annual recertification
  3. Retraining due to violation

Even in the most well-meaning case, the training is a check-the-box exercise meant to protect the company, not drive meaningful behavior change for the employee. During onboarding, harassment is buried under a pile of topics that are typically perceived as more relevant to the actual job. Recertifications are viewed as a bothersome task that HR makes everyone do—just because. And, reactionary retraining is clearly too late to prevent the issue in the first place.

Like any critical topic, harassment training should be positioned for maximum potential impact. While the basics may be required upfront during onboarding, additional activities should be introduced later, after the employee better understands the context of their role. This will allow the employee to better relate expected behavior to their daily work. Basic principles should be continuously reinforced to ensure they are top of mind when real-world decisions need to be made. On-demand resources, including the standard policy, behavior examples and support tools, should be accessible at all times.

Empower Managers

While HR is typically tasked with addressing harassment issues, they often represent a faceless department within the corporate structure to the average employee. Managers, however, are in the mix with employees every day. Along with peers, they are the most likely to notice inappropriate actions and/or changes in behavior that may indicate a problem. Rather than training managers to quickly defer to HR, we must prepare managers to identify instances of harassment and take the appropriate steps to protect their employees. This should include a focus up and down the hierarchy, as managers should be empowered to intervene in circumstances that involve their peers and/or superiors as well. As with frontline employees, critical information should be introduced over time and reinforced continuously.

Harassment is an unfortunate reality of the workplace. While L&D cannot solve the problem unilaterally, we must do our part to make sure employees feel safe and respected. We must continuously review our practices and shift from a focus on benign policy to the reality of how this problem makes people feel. It may be uncomfortable to address, but that’s the nature of the issue. As with any organizational priority, we must be proactive and ensure our learning and performance tactics meet the true needs of the people we support.

Has your organization reviewed its harassment prevention practices in wake of recent discussions? What else do you think L&D can do to contribute to an overall organizational solution to workplace harassment?

JD is one of the most prolific authors and speakers in workplace learning today. His practical approach integrates science, technology, storytelling and pure common sense to enable employees, improve performance and drive business results. For 20 years, JD has executed strategies for global organizations, including The Walt Disney Company.

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