Confessions of a Sexual Harassment Flunkee

We’ve recently attended several conferences and talks addressing workplace harassment, and many of them opened with the speaker or panelists sharing their own personal stories. We’ve heard some brave individuals share harrowing stories—ranging from egregious and shocking, to insidious but equally damaging. I too have been sexually harassed at work. But I’m not going to tell you about it today. I have a different confession: I failed as a harassment training attendee.

Up until a few months ago, my experience with any form of Sexual Harassment Training was limited to exactly two situations. Both were as an employee, pre #MeToo, and before my career switch to HR. While both trainings were several years ago, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on these experiences in recent weeks. (Understandably so, since we set out to create our own training program.)

Situation 1: The Lawyer Presentation

For the first training I failed, a lawyer came in to deliver a brief powerpoint presentation to our 30 or so employees in our conference room. The slides bullet-pointed-out the legal definition of sexual harassment and described hypothetical “case studies” as examples.

It was 6th grade sex-ed all over again. Simultaneously terrifying, embarrassing, and hysterically funny. The delivery was deadpan--almost scolding--and no one else spoke. My eyes were kept strictly to the speaker, the screen, the ground, or doodling on the printed company policy in front of us. I think we all knew that the slightest smirk or a mere moment of eye contact with a co-worker could devolve into inappropriate giggles. I think I held my breath until the thing was over and we could all reconvene in the kitchen, and safely laugh together.

And laugh we did. In our defense, the examples were giggle-worthy. They were blatantly obvious and obtuse (“Steve requests sexual favors from Sally and promises to give her a raise.”) Or the situations meant nothing to us 20-somethings working in a creative agency: “Barb is the only female truck driver on the crew at XYZ Trucking Company.” It was out of touch. It was almost offensive in itself.

The takeaway: It was a joke. Companies needed to “cover themselves” by having a lawyer make employees sign a sexual harassment policy. That’s all it was, by our assessment.

Situation 2: The Online Course

A few years later, I took an online sensitivity course required by my company. The ‘unofficial advice’ from the HR manager: “You can skip straight to the quiz at the end to get credit. It’s all common sense.” It wasn’t. I failed. Once I got a couple wrong, it kicked me back to the informational content. WTF?!? I didn’t know you couldn’t ask someone where they were from, or if they had kids, or what neighborhood they lived in!

The content contained similar ‘hypothetical’ situations that I recalled from the in-person session a few years before (now with awkward photography of people in ill-fitting workwear.) This training more broadly covered “sensitivity” and “diversity,” but the strong focus was on sexual harassment. Again, employees talked after. Mostly rolling their eyes and generally considering it a hassle on their busy week.

The takeaway: It just didn’t seem to apply to us. If you followed the rules of this super-corporate training, you’d never have a single friend at work. Not if you couldn’t discuss your personal life, use profanity, talk about sex, or make inappropriate jokes. If HR was enforcing that, we’d all be fired.

The Sad Truth

The unifying factor between these two trainings was that no one took them seriously. At the time, I shrugged it off. Looking back, I consider it a major fail. The crazy thing is, we all believed in equality, cared a lot about each other, and would’ve agreed that everyone deserved a safe work environment. And yet, we drew no connection. I personally had been harassed at work just a few years before (back in my waitstaff days). And yet, I didn’t relate to the trainings at all. Realizing that now makes me sad, embarrassed, and a bit angry.

The thing is, I wasn’t alone. The truth is, traditional ‘Sexual Harassment Training’ doesn’t work. The same format and techniques have been used for decades, and if they worked, we wouldn’t still be talking about it now (see: John Oliver on the topic). In fact, studies show that traditional training can do more harm than good--reinforcing negative gender stereotypes or alienating the people who need it most. The language of standard compliance creates dissonance (ie. “I’ve been harassed but would never think of myself as a ‘victim.’ or “I’ve behaved inappropriately, but I would never be a ‘harasser’.”) And the typical format is a one-way lesson, not engaging or practical.

A New Perspective

When NY State and NYC issued their mandates for required sexual harassment training, several clients reached out to us. They hoped someone had a more modern, relatable, useful approach. The more we reflected on our experiences, the stories, our industry, the news…the more we knew we had to create our own program. We knew it would be a big endeavor and require a ton of research—particularly if we wanted to break the mold.

We’ve tried to do things differently—to create a program that we, and the colleagues we’ve known over the years, wouldn’t fail. We get the laughs out at the right places so that everyone can focus on the seriousness too. We explain the law, but also acknowledge that the real world isn’t always black and white. We write the ‘hypothetical’ situations to be specific to the creative industry, and we don’t stop at comprehension. We go over ways to listen and communicate, give and hear feedback, and support one another—tools that are useful beyond the realm of harassment and discrimination.

For the trainings we’ve done so far, one thing is evident. The people DO care. They’re paying attention. They’re asking questions. They are engaged. We can’t take all the credit—the world is changing, the conversation is everywhere, and the stakes are high. But we can still hope it has something to do with our approach.

I have to confess: it’s already been one of the more rewarding experiences of my career. I’ve learned so much. I’m heartened by our audiences. My own beliefs and behaviors have shifted. Flunkee no more.

If you’re interested in our training please get in touch:

And…here are some resources we found helpful along the way:

#ThatsHarassment Campaign PSAs. We don’t use these currently, but as far as videos go, these are the best ‘dramatic reenactments’ I’ve seen. They were created in partnership with RAINN, are expertly produced, directed, and star well-known actors. They’re good. Unsettling, upsetting, and realistic. I’d love them to produce more situations (such as ones with gender identity and expression).

R29’s Gender Nation and especially the crowd-sourced and visual glossary they created in collaboration with GLAAD is incredibly useful and beautifully presented, with real quotes and vignettes.

If you’re planning to train your team on your own, NYC and New York State provide guidelines, requirements, and resources. Kudos to NYC for creating an inclusive Gender Matters Video as part of their online training, and for using true stories for their case studies in the training video.