More states are passing sexual harassment training laws – but will they change anything?
Over a year into #MeToo, more states are passing specific legislation requiring workplace sexual harassment training. But will the new laws actually bring about the change they intend?
California is the latest state to pass new legislation, and many more may be on the horizon. If you have a geographically dispersed team and are hoping for a one-course-fits-all approach, you’re out of luck: Each state seems to be operating in a vacuum, making no effort to coordinate its training requirements with other jurisdictions.
Here’s a (simplified) state-by-state breakdown of the laws:
- WHEN: Training must be completed by October 2019 for New York State and April 2020 for New York City.
- WHO: All employers must provide annual training under NY State law. Companies with 15 or more employees must provide annual training in NYC.
- WHAT: Training must include what constitutes sexual harassment (by NY State and NYC law), examples of harassment, recourse for victims, the complaint process, contact info for the EEOC and state/local agencies, and interactive components. NYC also mandates training on bystander intervention.
- WHEN: Training must be completed by January 2020 for existing employees and within one year of start for new employees.
- WHO: Companies with 50 or more employees must train employees every two years.
- WHAT: Training must include definitions of harassment, examples, remedies, the complaint process, retaliation prevention, contact information for the Delaware Department of Labor, and interactive elements. Additional training is required for managers.
- WHEN: Training must be completed by January 2020 for existing employees and biennially thereafter. New employees must train within six months of starting or within 30 days for temporary workers.
- WHO: The state’s latest legislation expands the existing manager training requirement to include all employees at companies with five or more employees.
- WHAT: Training (one hour for employees, two hours for managers) must include examples of harassment, remedies, and interactive components like assessment questions. California requires that training address harassment related to sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, as well as the prevention of abusive conduct.
- WHEN: Training must be completed within one year of hire and within one year of starting a management role.
- WHO: Companies with 15 or more employees must provide training.
- WHAT: Training must include the definition of harassment (by Maine law), the illegality of harassment and retaliation, examples, the complaint process, and contact information for the Maine Human Rights Division. Additional training is required for managers.
- WHEN: Training must be completed within six months of starting as a manager.
- WHO: Companies with 50 or more employees must implement training for managers.
- WHAT: Training (two hours) must define sexual harassment and include examples, options for recourse, the illegality of retaliation, the complaint process, and contact information for the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights.
But will this required training actually work?
Increased awareness and regulations are promising, but there are doubts that the required training will yield the desired results. “We’ve been checking the box for decades,” Patricia Wise, an attorney who served on the EEOC’s harassment task force, told NPR in 2017. “I don’t think people have been very motivated.”
Indeed, requiring employees to take training is one thing. Changing their behavior is another.
To be more effective, make sure your training program includes:
- Real-life scenarios. Joint research on the neuroscience of learning by MIT, Accenture, and Skillsoft found that learners need a storyline; research found that eLearning videos with actors in real-life situations stimulated the learners’ brains measurably more than instructor-led videos. And let’s agree that the blatantly contrived training videos of yesteryear aren’t relatable to the workplaces of 2019 (and probably never were).
- Related issues beyond sexual harassment. Sexual harassment training shouldn’t stop at the initial transgression. Be sure it discusses related issues like retaliation and bullying. Retaliation is alleged in about half of employee harassment lawsuits, yet many people don’t understand less black-and-white circumstances. Similarly, behaviors that constitute workplace bullying are less understood, even though nearly one in five U.S. workers have been victims of it. Though bullying isn’t illegal (yet), a model Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) is under consideration in 32 state legislatures.
- Prescribed actions. Training needs to cover not just the “what” but also the “what now?”. Employees must know what options they have, and managers should know how to best handle complaints. Practical advice for bystanders of harassment and bullying is also essential to creating a culture of zero tolerance.
Bottom line: For it to be effective, sexual harassment training must be part of a top-down, cultural effort. Training alone won’t end workplace abuse. But it can be the foundation of a proactive shift towards a culture of inclusion and respect.