For the last few decades, organizations have pumped considerable time, money, and resources into Harassment and Discrimination Training (HDT) for their employees. These programs are designed to improve workplace safety and culture and, in many cases, check compliance boxes.
But despite these substantial efforts, traditional harassment training has been largely ineffective. We reviewed existing academic research on the effectiveness of the most commonly used HDT models and the correlating criticisms of these programs. Organizational psychologists have uncovered a significant lack of success within traditional HDT. Let’s talk about why that is and how we can change it.
A problematic model for prevention
In 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published a report describing the overarching lack of success with the three primary HDT models used in the United States. These three models are based on overlapping but distinct goals:
- The equal opportunities model Practiced to ensure fairness so that minorities such as people of color are offered equal opportunities.
- The integrating minorities model An attempt to inform trainees about the subjective experience a socially disadvantaged minority may face in the workplace.
- The inclusion model Also known as the “me within we” model, used to emphasize the benefits of cultural diversity within an organization.
Over the last 30 to 40 years, traditional HDT may have helped companies defend against legal liability. According to the research, however, it has not worked as a harassment prevention tool.
So why doesn’t traditional harassment training work? The EEOC cites a few key reasons these models are problematic:
- Sensitive subject matter Often, HDT involves the discussion of personal experiences. Many employees may not feel comfortable discussing these issues in public settings, including the workplace, so they’re less likely to engage.
- Backlash Some HDT programs’ content might make those in the majority feel like they’re being warned or targeted as opposed to being educated. This leads to a defensive posture and a negative impression of the training itself.
- Biased trainers Effective HDT requires a trainer to be unbiased and to approach their role without an agenda. But sometimes a trainer may, intentionally or unintentionally, show more support to some groups than to others.
- Dogmatic communication patterns: Simply put, these patterns occur when trainees voice what they believe they should say rather than what their thoughts are in the training setting. It keeps participants silent about the reality of their experiences and limits the effectiveness of the program.
Reframing the problem
It’s difficult to authentically engage with training content that makes the trainee feel like they are the problem, especially when the discussion is focused on sensitive topics like harassment, discrimination, and protected groups.
Most HDT programs position the trainee as the aggressor—the would-be harasser who is blind to issues of diversity and sensitivity. This approach creates a negative atmosphere wherein participants feel they are there to be fixed rather than taught. It may also create an inappropriate focus on the majority (e.g., cis white men), an emphasis that can deter trainees from having honest discussions and voicing their concerns.
Often there’s a boomerang effect, in which trainees become more resistant to information that makes them feel this way, rendering training ineffective and even toxic.
So when does training work?
After examining the research, we know that effective HDT must be part of an overall culture of non-harassment, where an organization values its employees and seeks to give them a voice.
And while traditional training models have failed in the past, there are some new and different training approaches that are showing promise. If you want to implement a training program that works, research suggests the following:
- Focus on similarities amongst people (rather than their differences)
- Ensure that the training is not accusing a particular group of problematic behavior
- Set realistic goals that are directly tied to your training efforts
- Make sure management and leadership are visibly on board with your HDT
- Offer diverse, nuanced examples that clearly demonstrate the link between stereotyping behavior and organizational effectiveness
- Choose an adaptable program that suits the needs of your organization and your employees
- Avoid ignoring or prohibiting certain topics within the training curriculum
- Regularly review and evaluate the effectiveness of your HDT
Best practices with help from Spot
To make the most of training, it should be part of a larger strategic initiative to give employees a voice, expressed as an organizational priority from the top.
Whether you need to comply with new state-mandated training requirements, or you’re simply working to build an inclusive culture, we can help. Spot is a comprehensive platform offering harassment and discrimination training, lightweight surveys, and reporting. Interested? Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.