In the workplace, fire drills and active shooter drills are routine, but what about #MeToo drills? Sexual harassment is also a serious hazard that requires training to stop and prevent. Employees need practice so they know how to react to protect themselves and their colleagues.
It’s fair to say that, in the era of #MeToo, perpetrators are more likely to be held accountable, yet that’s only part of the battle. How much are employees being taught about how to respond and defend themselves?
As of Jan. 1, Illinois companies are required by state law to provide annual training on how to recognize and prevent sexual harassment or face hefty fines. That’s a necessary step for employers. So, too, is creating and enforcing workplace conduct rules. What may be lacking, and is just as vital, is giving employees the tools to respond in real time to an attack or other inappropriate behavior. Victims often are caught off-guard and have no mental map for what to do next. Think again about the active-shooting training many people receive. What to do in that panic-inducing instance? As many have been taught and memorized: Run, hide or fight.
The issue with sexual harassment training is that it’s typically anodyne, often in the form of a video presentation. Some experts say these exercises do little to either stop harassers or equip potential victims to handle issues on the spot. It’s a dry, impractical approach to the most intimate issue workers will likely ever encounter on the job.
“I think there’s a huge appetite for accountability and punishment for bad actors right now,” workplace consultant Fran Sepler told Quartz. “Prevention is a lot less interesting, but it’s where we should be putting a lot more energy.”
A 2018 study found that 38 percent of women said they’d experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. A much smaller number go so far as to file a federal complaint. Some 7,500 sexual harassment claims were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2018, about 85 percent by women. More than 500 such charges were filed in Illinois in 2018, up from 350 in 2017.
Companies subject to the Illinois law will be required to provide interactive training. The Illinois Department of Human Rights is creating a curriculum that businesses can use or adapt, and it will eventually offer supplemental videos. The goal should be to encourage regular and realistic discussion, not exaggerated or out-of-date silliness that encourages employees to laugh the issue off.
Front-line supervisors also need to be empowered to prepare employees with advice for situations that may arise in their particular role or field. Do those employees meet privately with executives, travel frequently, work late hours or handle client entertainment? Workers need to know they will be supported if they reject advances by a customer, even if things get awkward.
It helps if the boss takes the issue seriously. Dozens of workers accused McDonald’s of sexual harassment only to see CEO Steve Easterbrook fired after a consensual but inappropriate workplace relationship of his own. New CEO Chris Kempczinski told employees he wants to change the company’s hard-partying headquarters culture, according to The Wall Street Journal. "I have to be able to look at every single one of my senior leadership team members and say, ‘Do I believe that they personify the values of our company?’ And if they don’t, they’re not on the senior leadership team.”
What else? Bystander training can help co-workers who witness inappropriate behavior recognize when and how to interrupt a squirmy moment in progress and how to report it. Another idea: Parents and schools can do more to prepare young people, teaching them both how to behave as responsible adults and how to shut down or escape harassment.
The #MeToo movement has brought ugly behavior by powerful people out of the shadows. Those harassers are responsible for their misbehavior, but everyone can do more to improve workplace safety. Better, more realistic drills will help.
Chicago Tribune, Thursday