Researchers are calling on Australian organisations to spend more on sexual harassment training after they found training programs were not being adequately funded to deliver positive outcomes.
A joint study from the University of South Australia, the University of New South Wales and Columbia University compared sexual harassment training programs in Australia and the US.
It found that only 58 per cent of Australian organisations were delivering sexual harassment training compared with 91 per cent of American organisations.
“In Australia, one in four women and one in six men have experienced sexual harassment at work in the past five years, with similar rates reported in the United States,” UniSA researcher Professor Carol Kulik said.
“The fact that Australia has a lower percentage of organisations with training programs isn’t as worrisome from an Australian perspective.
“What is more concerning is the fact Australian organisations don’t have as many resources to deliver training.”
Kulik said Australian statistics on sexual harassment training were less accessible than in the US, partly due to historical differences between sexual harassment reporting in the two countries.
“Our legal definition of sexual harassment is quite similar but the US has a much longer history of reporting sexual harassment,” she said.
“US practitioners adopt training for legal reasons so that if there is a sexual harassment case in court they can say that they have this training program and it is likely to be once-off incidence.
“We don’t have as much history on this front in Australia.”
According to Kulik, businesses in Australia aren’t as prepared to part with funding for sexual harassment training.
“For many HR managers in Australia there is a sense of need for funding,” she said.
“It’s certainly a challenge – HR professionals and departments in Australia want to offer best-practice sexual harassment training but are constrained by a lack of resources.
“Until business and industry address sexual harassment education authentically and with the right resources, workplaces cannot expect to show much positive change.”
The recent emergence of the #MeToo and #TimesUp global movements has put sexual harassment back in the spotlight and Kulik says she hopes this renewed interest will inspire Australian businesses to take up the challenge to wipe harassment from the workplace.
“Our research pre-dates that (#MeToo and #TimesUp) and it’s good that there is a new urgency about it but it’s not a new problem.
“The Me Too movement is focussing on individual incidents of harassment and what we need is a widespread approach.”
Businesses that do implement sexual harassment training programs reportedly have an advantage over their competitors.
“Any sort of investment in training generates a positive sense of goodwill among employees,” Kulik said.
“Often the person who is being harassed is in a lower power position and they might feel unable to report incidences that make them uncomfortable to people higher up then them so they feel they have no option but to leave.
“That leads to a cost for organisations that are not retaining talent.”
The researchers recommend the following seven tips for businesses looking to introduce sexual harassment training in their workplace:
- Review your policy. If you don’t have a sexual harassment policy yet – write one! Then make sure it is visible and easy to access. Does your policy express zero tolerance for sexual harassment? Research suggests that employees are more likely to report harassment in zero tolerance workplaces
- Test (and retest) the water. The effectiveness of a training program will be reflected in employees’ willingness to act on negative behaviour. Periodically ask employees (in surveys and in focus groups) how comfortable they would be reporting negative behaviour that they experience or observe.
- Train the managers first. When an organisation pulls managers from their day-to-day responsibilities to participate in training, it sends a clear signal that the training is important. It also ensures that managers are ready to act on sexual harassment complaints that might surface as the training is rolled out across the organisation.
- Train to improve knowledge. Lecture-style training can help employees to define and recognise sexual harassment. But learning how to respond to sexual harassment, and how to manage sexual harassment complaints, require behavioural skill. Make sure your training gives employees the opportunity to develop and practice those behaviours in a safe place.
- Train allies. Don’t rely on victims to report sexual harassment. Use your training program to emphasise that a safe workplace is everyone’s responsibility. Employees need to feel comfortable reporting harassment that they observe and supporting co-workers who bring complaints forward.
- Brace yourself. Training programs can sometimes generate a spike in complaints, as employees learn to recognise sexual harassment and understand the reporting channels. A short-term rise in complaints can signal a healthy system is coming online.
- Follow through. When harassment is reported, act quickly and hold perpetrators accountable. Employees are less likely to report harassment when they believe nothing will happen as a result. Complaint systems will become less effective over time if the first cases fail to generate a positive organisational response.
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