A call to arms
It is time to declare war on workplace sexual harassment, in the legal industry and every organization. After two years of a relentless stream of personal stories and appalling statistics, #metoo has demonstrated that workplace sexual harassment is pervasive. Harassment training has been used for many years by well-intentioned organizations and law firms. Unfortunately, the 2016 report (bit.ly/bt0619p30-1) on a study by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found no evidence that traditional harassment training is effective in preventing harassment. Should we wave the white flag on harassment training?
There is a new weapon in the battle on workplace sexual harassment: bystander training. Traditional harassment training places sole responsibility for prevention squarely on the victim and the harasser. This alienates the vast majority of the workforce, who are mandated to attend training that is irrelevant to them.
Bystander training is relevant to everyone in the work community. The focus is on developing a mutual understanding about what bullying and harassment looks like in the organization’s unique context, and empowering everyone to “see something, say something.” It is not about handing out whistles and making everyone referees. Instead, it is about moving from a culture of silent condonation of harassment to one that tackles problems while they are small, before they grow bigger.
United States Army Example
In this war, one might not have thought the United States Army would be leading in tactics, but it has been reported to have taken a progressive approach (bit.ly/bt0619p30-2). The US Army’s philosophy is battles can only be won by teams working effectively together. Bullying and harassment is toxic to teams and breaks down trust. They have, accordingly, rebranded their harassment training as leadership development, and placed the focus on effective teamwork through the elimination of harassment.
This approach has obvious application to organizational strategy. Every company, and law firm, needs trust and teamwork to succeed in reaching goals. Bystander training is leadership development because it provides tools to enable teamwork.
Training Alone is not Enough
Another fair criticism of traditional harassment training is that it is not integrated into day-to-day work. It is a session that you go to, a box is checked, and you go back to your desk. Today’s reboot of harassment training only works if combined with cultural change, which means visible support from the top down. Also recommended are follow-up team meetings, to reinforce team values and mutual agreement on acceptable behaviours and boundaries.
Bystander training is a proactive step that organizations can take to combat workplace sexual harassment. The time and expense of training is more than paid for in avoiding the cost of managing or defending a single harassment complaint. We can never surrender and accept that sexual harassment at work is inevitable. There is new ammunition and strategy available, and we can all be a part of change for the better.
Sara Forte is the founder of Forte Law (fortelaw.ca), an employment law firm in Surrey. Pamela Costanzo is a labour & employment lawyer with Forte Law.