Australian firms must back sexual harrassment training

| April 13, 2018

Researchers are calling on Australian firms to devote more resources to training their staff about the dangers of sexual harassment training.

A joint study from the University of South Australia, the University of New South Wales and Columbia University compared sexual harassment training programs in Australia and the US and found that only 58% of Australian organisations provided sexual harassment training to their staff compared with 91% in the USA.

UniSA researcher Professor Carol Kulik noted that “In Australia, one in four women and one in six men have experienced sexual harassment at work in the past five years, with similar rates reported in the United States.

“The fact that Australia has a lower percentage of organisations with training programs isn’t as worrisome from an Australian perspective, what is more concerning is the fact Australian organisations don’t have as many resources to deliver training.”

Kulik said Australian statistics on sexual harassment training were less accessible than in the US, partly due to historical differences between sexual harassment reporting in the two countries.

“Our legal definition of sexual harassment is quite similar but the US has a much longer history of reporting sexual harassment,” she said. “US practitioners adopt training for legal reasons so that if there is a sexual harassment case in court they can say that they have this training program and it is likely to be once-off incidence. We don’t have as much history on this front in Australia.”

According to Kulik, businesses in Australia aren’t as prepared to part with funding for sexual harassment training. “For many HR managers in Australia there is a sense of need for funding,” she said. “It’s certainly a challenge – HR professionals and departments in Australia want to offer best-practice sexual harassment training but are constrained by a lack of resources.

“Until business and industry address sexual harassment education authentically and with the right resources, workplaces cannot expect to show much positive change.”

The recent emergence of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements around the world after a rash of celebrity sexual harassment cases has put the issue firmly in the spotlight and Kulik says she hopes this renewed interest will inspire Australian businesses to take structural measures to end harassment in the workplace.

“Our research pre-dates #MeToo and #TimesUp and it’s good that there is a new urgency about it but it’s not a new problem. The Me Too movement is focussing on individual incidents of harassment and what we need is a widespread approach.”

Businesses that do implement sexual harassment training programs tend to have an advantage over their competitors. “Any sort of investment in training generates a positive sense of goodwill among employees,” Kulik said.

“Often the person who is being harassed is in a lower power position and they might feel unable to report incidences that make them uncomfortable to people higher up then them so they feel they have no option but to leave.  That leads to a cost for organisations that are not retaining talent.”

Seven steps to end harassment at work

The researchers offer seven tips for businesses looking to introduce sexual harassment training for their staff.

1 Review company policy.
If firms don’t have a sexual harassment policy yet they should write one and, just as importantly, ensure it is visible to staff and easy to access. The policy should clearly express zero tolerance for sexual harassmen as research suggests that employees are more likely to report harassment in zero tolerance workplaces.

2. Test and retest employer responses.
The effectiveness of a training program can only be as strong as they employees’ willingness to act on negative behaviour. Firms should periodically ask employees in surveys and in focus groups how comfortable they would be reporting negative behaviour that they experience or observe to gauge the effectiveness of their procedures.

3. Train managers before staff.
When an organisation pulls managers from their day-to-day responsibilities to participate in training, it sends a clear signal to them and their staff that the training is important. It also ensures that managers are ready to act on sexual harassment complaints that might surface as the training is rolled out across the organisation.

4. Train to improve behaviour as well as knowledge.
Lectures can help employees to define and recognise sexual harassment but learning how to respond to sexual harassment, and how to manage sexual harassment complaints, requires a range of personal and behavioural skills. Firms should therefore ensure their training gives employees the opportunity to develop and practice those behaviours in a safe place before they are needed.

5. Encourage staff to support each other.
Firms should not rely on victims to report sexual harassment. Companies must emphasis in staff training and company policies that ending sexual harassment is part of creating a safe workplace and that a safe workplace is everyone’s responsibility. Employees must feel comfortable in reporting harassment that they observe and supporting co-workers who bring complaints forward if the perpetrators are to be identified.

6. Prepare for an initial rush of complaints.
Training programs can sometimes generate a spike in complaints, as employees learn to recognise sexual harassment and understand the reporting channels. A short-term rise in complaints can signal a healthy system is coming online, rather than a spate of new harassment is occurring.

7. Follow up complaints with urgency.
Firms must act quickly and hold perpetrators accountable when harassment is reported, rather than play down complaints or delay reaction. Complaint systems will become less effective over time if the first cases fail to generate a positive organisational response and employees are less likely to report harassment when they believe nothing will happen as a result.