Sarah is approached by a senior leader in her organisation (not her boss). He tells her that if she doesn’t provide certain sexual favours then life is going to be very uncomfortable for her.

She feels threatened, afraid. She feels unsafe. She is concerned about her job and her career.

This guy is not her boss. He’s in a powerful position in the organisation.

She’s confused; she doesn’t know what to do. And she doesn’t know who to turn to. Focusing on what Sarah should do is important, she needs to get safe, and get support, and then decide what to do next.

But it’s time to shift the onus from women, to leaders

Organisations are responsible for providing a safe context within which Sarah can do her best work. That is a key responsibility of an organisation.

And it’s not happening for her.

One way to increase the safety is to provide good sexual harassment training.

How to make sure sexual harassment training works

It’s a touchy subject. And an important one. Yet hard to do well.

Shannon Rawski found 25% of participants experienced a negative reaction to sexual harassment training. Way too many.

They felt:

✘ devalued and disrespected

✘ like they were either harassers or victims

✘ deeply threatened

This led to backlash against the training. The 25% who experienced a negative reaction:

↓ learned less than others about policies and practices

↓  didn’t share information

↓  distanced themselves from potential victims

⇡  increased their sex-based hostility and harassment

This latter outcome is particularly concerning. The training can backfire and actually increase sexually-based comments and harassment.

What to do instead, to make sexual harassment training work:

📌 Give people a positive role to play in the training

📌 Assume everyone is a potential ally not a harasser or a victim

📌 Recognise the elephant in the room – different people judge the same behaviour differently

📌 Train people in empathy and conflict skills so that they can have difficult conversations about unwelcome behaviour

There are two vitally important things organisations need to think about:
1. Create safe climates

True safety cultures include psychological, emotional and sexual safety as well as physical safety.

Organisations need to hold leaders accountable for the safety of their teams. If it isn’t already, this could be explicitly addressed in climate surveys.

Leaders need to create a safe climate within their own team where people are prepared to give voice. And they ought to be paying attention to what’s going on for their teams and amongst their peers. A peer calling out another peer on his behaviour is safety leadership.

It can be threatening for women to speak up about what’s happening to themselves or to the women around them. It helps to give voice to inappropriate behaviour in a safe climate that can be relied on. One where people generally can speak up about what’s happening around them and what they notice about what’s happening to other people.

2. Make training about caring for others

Sexual harassment should focus on taking care of your colleagues, and how to do that well. It’s about noticing what’s happening to others and having the confidence and tools to talk about what’s going on. What do you notice and how do you call out?

Having a known network of people / contacts where you can voice your concerns, and have them taken seriously, will also help. That way, there are open channels of communication focused on supporting

It’s much easier someone who feels threatened and unsafe to reach out to someone who is more like themselves. Foster strong peer support networks so there’s someone you can go to.

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