20 Years Ago, Harassment Training Was Revolutionary. What Changed?

American attitudes toward sexual harassment in the workplace have changed substantially over the last two decades. In 1998, 53 percent of adults surveyed by Gallup said that people were too sensitive about sexual harassment. But something has shifted over the last two decades. In 2017, 59 percent of adults said people are not sensitive enough.

The general public is expecting more from businesses than ever when it comes to creating a safe, inclusive work environment. So how is sexual harassment in the workplace still so widespread?

What made harassment training revolutionary in 1998?

In 1998, the Supreme Court determined that for a company to avoid liability in a sexual harassment case, it had to show that its employees were trained and given a way to report offenses. Anita Hill had charged Justice Clarence Thomas with harassment just years prior, and companies like Mitsubishi had made payments totaling $34 million to a cohort of female workers.

At the time, this ruling was revolutionary. In response to the new federal code, companies across the U.S. adopted training seminars and videos, understanding that any company that shrugged off sexual harassment would now pay a steep price. Women’s rights advocates praised the court’s decision to place responsibility upon employers, and even businesses were thankful to have clear guidelines at last.

So when stories about Harvey Weinstein began to circulate, not only did sexual harassment become a focal point but so did the methods companies have used in an attempt to stop it. The New York Times reported that harassment trainings are "conduits of information" at best and the EEOC even stated that trainings can carry negative effects. For all the new programs and policies enacted in past decades, women, men, and non-binary people remain as likely to be harassed today as they were 30 years ago.

Why sexual harassment training is no longer sufficient

If everyone believes training and reporting are integral to good culture, then why aren’t they working? It’s because the focus on compliance and claim prevention, inherent to most training and reporting programs, misses the most important driver of a healthy workplace culture today. Since 1998, we’ve shifted from a society that emphasizes legal compliance to one that demands social consciousness.

For a time, as long as companies tracked attendance at trainings, clicked through a PowerPoint, and collected signatures on the employee handbook, they were off the hook. But in recent years, trainings have been found to reinforce gender stereotypes, receive more backlash when delivered by women, and fail to promote accountability unless done by a supervisor. Women and minorities who support diversity, inclusion and equity have even been found to be penalized in performance reviews.

Reporting systems have likewise fallen behind. 72 percent of workers who experience sexual harassment at work do not report it, and 75 percent of victims who do report sexual harassment experience retaliation. Beyond a fear of retaliation or isolation, victims may disqualify their own experience or not be able to report the violation at all. The focus on compliance and claim prevention as a risk management strategy has changed dramatically with the #MeToo movement. Today, brand risk is now cited in the Aon 2017 Global Risk Management Survey as a company’s #1 risk.

How employers can avoid sexual harassment and brand risk today

So how are businesses expected to meet the standard today? Trainings can be updated to reflect where we are as a society, and reporting can be designed to protect the affected individuals. Yet prevention offers the highest return of all—setting a standard of dignity, respect, and professionalism can attract top talent, protect you from surprise lawsuits, and stop harassment in its tracks.

Compliance is no longer sufficient. In the future of work, leading companies are thinking beyond diversity and finding new ways to help their culture align with a new generation of standards.

Learn How You Can Protect Your Culture From Toxic Employees