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Beyond the Hype: Quality Anti-Harassment Training Delivers Results

Is workplace compliance training an exercise in futility designed as a "CYA" for companies in today's litigious society? Recent articles,1 and even the EEOC,2 have questioned whether some types of compliance training actually prevent ethical violations, sexual harassment and discrimination, and some take the position that online training courses are a waste of time due to their impersonal nature and simplistic approach.

However, done right, compliance training is so much more than a "check the box" solution to minimize a company’s legal exposure. Instead, it is a key component in building an inclusive and respectful company culture where employees are educated on specifically what behaviors are expected, and empowered to speak up when they don’t feel comfortable. Haydee Kapetanakis, EPS client and Human Resource Director at Sun Pharmaceutical Industries, recently said, "Live training connects the people and provides insight, gives direct feedback and allows employees and managers alike to share experiences, ask questions and learn from one another. It has proven to be most beneficial at Sun as we strive to create a culture and identity."

So what does an effective compliance training program look like? Based on our company’s 20+ years of experience as a pioneer in this field, here are the foundational principles of a successful training initiative, as illustrated by the acronym "TRAIN SMART."

T: Top down support
The most successful training programs will include everyone who works for your organization, including your C-suite employees. Think of the message sent when your highest ranking executives open the sessions in person (or via video if not feasible) explaining their own personal commitment to compliance and a respectful work environment for all employees. Also, make sure to let your staff members know that all managers and executives will also attend the training. Buy-in at all levels is crucial. 

R: Respect-focused 
To succeed, your training should be focused on the big picture: the creation of a respectful, ethical workplace as opposed to what simply is required by law or your policy. Your training should repeatedly emphasize respect as the foundation supporting your training efforts. To make this point loud and clear, train your workforce not simply on what is “legal” but what is the best practice for the work environment and for each employee and your business objectives as a whole. Otherwise, your workforce may perceive that all the organization is trying to achieve is a defense in the event of a lawsuit. Make sure your training reinforces this message throughout in the case studies and activities included, by repeatedly asking attendees to consider the perspectives of the fictional characters depicted, and how specific behaviors impact the workplace as a whole.

A: Aligned to your mission, culture, values and policies
Compliance training receives the most buy-in and makes the most sense when it is aligned with your corporate culture and the policies that support it. This alignment is often where off-the-shelf, canned training materials miss the mark. Build your mission, values and policies into your training sessions by specifically explaining how the key teaching points help your workforce build and maintain company culture. Also, be certain to explain relevant company policies, what they say, how they support the company mission and culture and where employees can find these policies should they want to review them in the future. 

I: Interactive 
Ideally, this means that the training sessions should be live, and facilitated by an experienced instructor with real-world experience who is skilled in encouraging dialogue from participants. On-line training is most effective when it follows live training as a reinforcement of the concepts taught live. Choose a facilitator who is engaging, and encourages open dialogue. Minimize the amount of lecture on concepts and instead focus on activities that cause participants to think and share diverse viewpoints about the topics presented.

N: Needs-based
Ensure that the training offered addresses the issues that affect your workplace. This is another way that online training often falls short. Has your workforce experienced issues with cultural sensitivity? Or perhaps grappled with an atmosphere of casual, sexual-innuendo based banter? Or maybe had issues of managers not setting the appropriate “tone” or not appropriately handling issues when employees speak up? Your training initiative should focus on your specific issues by incorporating related case studies that present situations that are analogous (but perhaps not identical) to the issues your attendees have faced. 

S: Scheduled- wisely 
In scheduling your training sessions, it is important to be mindful of the “when’s” and “who’s” that can impact your workforce’s level of receptiveness to the training. For example, requiring night shift employees to attend early morning training may lead to a less than fruitful session. Likewise, training occurring immediately after employees have put in considerable overtime hours may not be well-received. Ideally, management and leaders should be trained first so they can reinforce the concepts addressed if employees have questions after training sessions. It is also wise (if feasible) to cap the amount of attendees per class (best practices is no more than 25 attendees per class3 to encourage open dialogue and discourage distraction. 

M: Meaningful to your workforce 
The training needs to address realistic situations that your employees might encounter to have an impact. This means that your training should incorporate relevant industry examples and be tailored to the actual functions performed by your workforce, down to the terms of art the materials and trainer use to describe “employees” and various levels of management. 

A: Appropriately facilitated 
The trainer needs to have real-life experience handling the specific compliance issues covered in the training, and know how to explain the material in a way that makes sense. To be effective, the facilitator should be skilled in the art of persuasion and be able to make the necessary teaching points while respecting the diverse and sometimes counterproductive range of emotions experienced by audience members during discussions about sensitivity issues. In addition, trainers must understand the sensitive nature of the materials that are being covered and be prepared to handle issues that arise effectively.

R: Reinforced 
Make sure your training efforts are reinforced by strongly encouraging managers to model the behaviors encouraged in your sessions. This could even be incorporated into goals and performance expectations for your management staff. It is also a good idea to train employees periodically on the concepts presented - no less than every two years. Reinforcement is key to ensuring that your workforce “walks the talk.” 

T: Tailored to the audience 
It is also important that the training be not “too simple” for a workforce that has had past extensive training, and not “too complicated” for a workforce unfamiliar with the concepts presented. Also, be mindful that the examples and case studies fit the attendees and what they do on a daily basis. An off-the-shelf training program with examples in an office setting may not resonate with your field labor staff. Make sure the trainer is educated on the types of employees that will be in each session and is well versed on examples that will speak to all. Also, consider whether any communication barriers exist. Does any of your workforce primarily or solely speak a language other than English? Consider having sessions presented in both in English and for example, Spanish, and provide translated versions of the handout, and have bi-lingual management employees present during and after employee sessions to translate any questions. 

Don’t let recent headlines – mostly designed as “click bait” - deter you from high quality training initiatives. Training is NOT ineffectual. Carefully selecting your method of training, your trainer and being mindful of the details of the training make all the difference in not only preventing harassment and discrimination, but laying the foundation for building a respectful workplace.

Listen to "Beyond the Hype: Quality Anti-Harassment Delivers Results," an interview with author Rachelle Weathersby, Esq., and host Lisa Dishman, SPHR, SHRM-SCP in the EPS' Real SolutionsTM podcast series for human resource and employment law professionals.

1E.g., Ethics Trainings are Even Dumber Than You Think, by L.V. Anderson; No Evidence that Training Prevents Harassment, Finds EEOC Task Force, by Christina Folz.; Sexual Harassment Training May Have Reverse Effect, Suggests Research, by Sam Levin

2EEOC Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace Report of Co-Chairs Chai R. Feldblum & Victoria A. Lipnic

3The “Goldilocks” Training Dilemma: Does It Fit?