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Sexual Harassment Is Not a Training Problem

When I was at TRADOC (Army’s training HQ) recently, I had about a minute to explain that fixing the sexual harassment issue is (mostly) not a training problem.

06-06 Prickly Pear

Prickly Pear Cactus, Coyote Creek Trail

Meaning, you cannot fix a problem with sexual harassment and assault by making everybody take any amount of training. (This is true for any big cultural change, not just for harassment.)

Training is only good for teaching people to do something that they don’t already know how to do.

Training cannot, by itself, change a culture. It does not substitute for leadership. It doesn’t offer feedback, consequences, or rewards after the fact.

Do soldiers know how to treat each other with respect? (Or at least without harassing or assaulting them?)

Maybe. So much depends on the culture they come from: what was “normal” there and how we now define “harassment” and “assault.”

So much also depends on what is tolerated, what isn’t. Do the people they look up to “walk the walk” (or not).

Training Can. We can teach our people to recognize and avoid certain behaviors. For example:

  • This is harassment. This is assault. These are the characteristics of behaviors that make up harassment and assault.
  • Here’s what happens to you if you engage in these behaviors.
  • Here’s what happens to you if you stand by and allow others to engage in these behaviors.
  • Here’s what to do if you are harassed or assaulted.

Training Cannot. Enforce rules. Offer support to victims/survivors. Model appropriate behavior after the training is over. Provide consequences for breaking the rules.

An Approach That Worked. Years ago a Fortune 500 company took steps to reduce sexual harassment at work. Every person who supervised even one other human being went to training:

  • What is harassment, what isn’t (sometimes people were a little surprised)
  • Expectations from the organization re: harassment
  • What to do when it happens
  • Consequences for allowing it in your organization

The approach included training, but more than that, enforcement.

  • No, you may not post that photo in the workplace. Take it down.
  • No, you may not make jokes like that during a staff meeting. Stop it… Plus, apologize.
  • Further, you may not allow your people to engage in harassing behavior. At all. If you do, you’ll answer to ….

Training alone would never have worked. What made it work was that upper management was serious and managers at every level were held accountable. (Some of those who went to training still didn’t “get it,” and found themselves apologizing for behavior they only later realized was not something they’d want for their daughters, sisters, etc.)

Big changes take time. Sometimes, people are surprised about what they don’t know. (What? I’m part of the problem? I had no idea.)

To make a culture shift this big, the entire system has to align: goals, knowledge & skills, feedback, consequences.

For a big culture shift, training alone won’t do it. Every person who supervises anyone has to be a role model for the right behaviors and has to appropriately reward good behavior. At the same time, managers must discourage the behaviors we want to weed out.

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