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'Better' training critical for tackling sexual harassment at work

Thursday 22 November 2018

Alex Newton and Sarah Podro introduce new Acas research into sexual harassment in the workplace, and how training is critical to help tackle it.

Sarah Podro Displays a larger version of this image in a new browser windowAlex Newton blog Alex Newton & Sarah Podro

Alex has a background in equalities, education and training, having previously worked in the third sector for a number of charities.

Sarah has a strong background in policy and research having worked formerly as a Senior Policy Adviser in the Acas strategy unit.

Uncomfortable situations are part of our day job. At Acas, our work involves redundancy, pay talks, industrial action, mediations and more. Yet if there are magic words guaranteed to produce stony-faced silence from a group, they are 'mandatory equalities training'.

Why so? Since the revelations about Harvey Weinstein went public in October 2017, a plethora of reports have laid bare the prevalence and distressing nature of sexual harassment in workplaces in the UK and abroad. ComRes polling for the BBC in November last year found that two in five women and almost one in five men have experienced sexual harassment at work. The Women and Equalities Select Committee put it plainly in July this year: 'Employers have failed to tackle workplace sexual harassment'.

In other words, we know there's a problem. The question is how to tackle it - and there, as they say, is the rub. As we've seen in the latest Acas research pdf icon Sexual harassment in the British workplace [328kb], when asked "Which do you think would be effective at preventing sexual harassment in the workplace?", 60% selected the option of 'better training for all staff'.

The crucial word is 'better'. Too often, we encounter a negative reaction to this type of training. Some feel it's just done to tick a box. Others may welcome the issue being discussed, but fear the training will become the finger-wagging, lecture-style tirade, akin to a parent telling off a child, as it can sometimes be.

If the aim is to improve behaviour in the workplace, the way in which these sessions are delivered is crucial - particularly considering who the training is targeting. For instance, research in the Harvard Business Review last year found in some instances, 'Men who score high on a psychological scale for likelihood to harass women come out of training with significantly worse attitudes toward harassment, thinking it is no big deal.' As long ago as 2001, a study about sexual harassment training showed that after the training, 'Male participants were less likely than other groups to perceive coercive sexual harassment, less willing to report sexual harassment, and more likely to blame the victim'.

Our experience of working with employers and unions, however, is that sexual harassment - and wider equalities - training can be well-received if it feels like peers talking to peers. The role of the trainer, then, isn't to deliver 'the answers'. This can be tempting, particularly as we find so many hard-pressed HR managers ask that we 'just tell them what is and isn't acceptable'.

The truth, is, however, that there isn't a magic list that applies to all workplaces. Instead, within rough guidelines, we need to make employees more self-reflective of their own behaviour. Training, then, can provide stimulus material for debate and then facilitate discussion, ensuring all voices are heard.

Likewise, training can be even more powerful if it is delivered directly by employees themselves - shaped by their own experience. Acas' role in this is to work with a small group of staff to come up with a product that they feel comfortable delivering internally, giving them the knowledge and confidence to do so. After all, you know your co-workers, and the culture and the environment in which you work better than we do.

So, if you're looking for sexual harassment training, please do get in touch. But we'll do you a favour: rather than saying 'yes' immediately, we'll say 'stop', and discuss exactly your staff would respond well to and who should deliver it.

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