How to Strengthen Harassment Training and Improve Workplace Culture

Natasha Nicholson


April 1, 2022

Strengthening Workplace Harassment Training

Over the past several years, there has been a cultural awakening in the business world, pushing organizations to actively hold employees accountable for unacceptable behavior and improve their workplace culture. While some companies have made notable strides, the hard work of building and maintaining a harassment-free work environment is far from over.

According to a recent survey by employee feedback management platform All Voices, 44% of full-time workers experienced harassment at work in the form of personal harassment and bullying, discriminatory harassment and bias, or online harassment and cyber bullying. Further, 48% have witnessed others experience harassment at work, 52% have not felt psychologically safe at work and 34% left a job because of unresolved harassment issues.

Even with the increase in remote work arrangements, harassment has not abated. All Voices found 38% of respondents still experienced harassment remotely, through email, video conferencing, messaging platforms or by phone. Additionally, 24% said harassment continued or got worse through remote work channels.

To achieve transformative change, organizations must go far beyond addressing blatant harassment and provide employees with the structure, support and guidance they need to navigate workplace interactions. That means providing education and training that can help change perspectives, build trust and empower employees to better understand and support one another.

Accomplishing this is key to creating an inclusive culture that can attract and retain employees, helping future-proof your organization by creating an environment that allows employees to collaborate, innovate and unify around a common purpose and shared ideals. This can also help combat the talent scarcity threats posed by the Great Resignation.

The Cost of Harassment

“In addition to costing an organization its image, reputation and credibility, misconduct in office and other settings can impact their bottom line,” crisis management and communication expert George Segal wrote in an article for Forbes. Indeed, Segal pointed to a recent study from ethics and compliance technology provider Vault Platform that found the financial hit to U.S. businesses from workplace misconduct in the past year was “an eye-popping $20.2 billion.”

Based on starting figures provided by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the Vault study reported, “Workers who had to take time off in 2021 due to workplace misconduct missed, on average, six days of work, resulting in 43 million sick days. With businesses increasingly fearful of the Great Resignation, the research showed that 14% of staff who experienced workplace misconduct in the last 12 months ended up leaving their role. At an average cost of $4,000 to hire a new worker, this equates to $20.2 billion in re-hiring costs alone for U.S. businesses as a direct result of workplace misconduct.”

Further, this estimate is just the tip of the iceberg as it does not include any legal fees, compensation or other costs of these cases, and the SHRM figures on hiring costs predate the Great Resignation and tightening labor market. 

Recognizing Harassment

To stop harassment, it is important to understand that it follows a progression. Even in its mildest forms like biting remarks, snickering and unwelcome teasing, harassment can poison the work environment if left unchecked. In some cases, such behaviors may not meet the strict legal definition of harassment, but can embolden others to escalate their behavior to where it does. By the time that happens, resolving the problem is more difficult and more costly. 

The insidious thing about a culture of harassment is that it grows in dark corners where it is more likely to go unnoticed, thrives when it goes unreported and spreads if it is tolerated. In its subtler forms, it can rise to the level of normalcy and continue to inflict damage in the form of microaggressions, sometimes cloaked as jokes or friendly banter. It can leave people feeling powerless, not knowing what to say or do. In turn, that can lead to isolation, distrust and ultimately departure from the organization—and all of it may go on just beneath the surface.

One of the reasons harassment goes unnoticed is the fact that employees and managers often do not have the tools, strategies or the organizational structure and support they need to either address the issue directly or work toward resolution. A focus on early-stage intervention can help employees and managers to recognize the boundaries around behavior in the workplace. When paired with guidance for bystanders on effective intervention actions, this can create a powerful means of stopping harassment before it has a chance to take hold. 

The Elements of Transformative Change

There may be historical, structural and cultural factors behind harassment, but when it comes to working with employees to create transformative changes, education is always central to the solution. Workplace education is not easy, however. The ability to learn new concepts and ideas is often affected by individuals’ own life experiences, so it is particularly hard to know what will work for everyone or what will meet the resistance of inherent or unconscious bias. At its best, education and training can help interrupt negative patterns and build upon positive behaviors by generating awareness and facilitating self-discovery. It can bind people around common ideas and foster a sense of shared resolve. The key is to shape an educational experience that can break through barriers like malaise, skepticism and negativity.

To start, for any educational initiative to be effective, it must have buy-in from leaders. The roll-out must be part of a thoroughly thought-out communication campaign that makes managers part of the planning process, includes junctures for assessing progress, and fortifies the effort with strategies for addressing and managing resistance.

To achieve transformative change, training must hit on specific points that have the power to change perspectives and affect behavior both collectively and on an individual basis. Here are seven steps to help get there: 

  • Generate awareness. The first step to identifying and addressing harassment is to create awareness of the importance of working in an atmosphere of fairness, respect and understanding. Make it understood that a harassment-free environment is meant to benefit everyone, not just any one group.
  • Facilitate self-discovery. Use interactive exercises to help employees make personal discoveries. Help them to identify their blind spots and gain understanding about how their own behavior may, deliberately or inadvertently, serve to minimize others. Enable them to see how their choices can have a direct impact on the outcome of a situation.
  • Connect to real people. Break through barriers with real-life stories. This is especially effective because these types of accounts tap into the essence of who we are as human beings, drawing out compassion, empathy and understanding. If the narrative is shared in a thoughtful way, people are less likely to disagree with what is essentially someone else’s truth.
  • Share relatable examples. Watching scenes that are believable and relatable can play a key role in the learning process. Consider how stories told through videos can resonate in a powerful and memorable way—the same applies to training. The opposite is also true, and tired narratives with obviously fake dialogue can be off-putting and even set learning back a notch.
  • Go beyond blatant harassment to uncover gray areas. It is easy to point to blatant harassment as a “don’t” but it is much harder—and more valuable—to show that harassment is far more complex. In the beginning, harassment can seem innocent enough and then escalate to be much more serious. Uncovering those boundaries and learning how to interpret complex situations is key to making progress.
  • Create moments for self-reflection. Pausing and reflecting on what we have learned is critical because it takes time to let new ideas and concepts soak in. We need to have moments to think about how we can apply these lessons to our own way of navigating through the world.
  • Amplify learning with follow-up and repetition. Learning is never a one-and-done proposition. Only with thoughtful, constructive follow-up and consistent repetition can we retain what we have learned and put those lessons into practice on a daily basis. That means taking the opportunity to use the training experience as a jumping-off point for thoughtful discussion and feedback.

Substantive harassment prevention training can help create a more inclusive workplace where everyone feels valued and understood, improving individual experiences as well as lifting morale and overall company culture. The result is an atmosphere where people feel confident, comfortable and at ease, enabling them to be more creative, collaborative and innovative—and ultimately setting organizations and their employees up for greater success. 

Natasha Nicholson is director of content marketing at Kantola Training Solutions, an e-learning company focused on diversity, equity and inclusion and harassment prevention training.