From Compliance to Prevention: Reimagining Online Sexual Harassment Training

Elizabeth Bille, Senior Director of Prevention Education, EVERFI

Elizabeth Bille, Senior Director of Prevention Education, EVERFI

From the headlines resulting from #MeToo and #TimesUp to an EEOC task force report, a message emerged loud and clear: despite the prevalence of workplace training programs, many are not particularly effective at actually preventing harassment.                                                           

A wave of new state sexual harassment prevention mandates reflects these concerns, requiring organizations nationwide to upgrade their training efforts. Critically, employers themselves are increasingly prioritizing harassment prevention, with 83 percent of respondents to an EVERFI poll placing harassment and discrimination training as the top priority for 2017 through 2018. As a provider of evidence-based training across a multitude of intractable issues, including sexual harassment, we’re pleased that state legislatures and organizations are applying more rigors to these prevention programs.

As organizations look to revamp their sexual harassment training, however, it is important to dispel a damaging myth: that training is a one-and-done, compliance-focused event. If the goal is to help stop sexual harassment from occurring in the first place, training must be an ongoing, organization-wide, comprehensive effort that not only meets relevant legal standards but also leverages proven strategies for impacting behavior. The good news is that well-designed technology-based training that incorporates innovative, evidence-based approaches can be a game-changer in addressing harassment at scale, particularly for multistate or multinational organizations. To ensure effectiveness and maximize the impact of online training, there are five key elements that must be addressed.


Perhaps the most fundamental component of any comprehensive sexual harassment prevention program is its compliance with applicable laws. Ensuring training meets the precise specifications of these laws is no small task, and the complexity of doing so is increasingly compounded for companies operating in multiple states or countries.                               

With four training mandates passed thus far in 2018, and others on their way, online training is often a necessity for employers navigating these rapidly changing requirements.                                                           

Web-based training allows for the creation of multiple, branching courses that account for variations in local law. Such course “paths” can be customized to provide relevant contact information for reporting, outline workplace-specific methods of filing a claim, and present jurisdictional-specific messaging required by law.                  

Evidence-Based Content                                    

Teaching learners about the liability risks of harassment, however necessary for legal compliance purposes, is insufficient to the task of preventing it from occurring in the first place. Sexual harassment is the result of a complex intermingling of social, cultural, and situational dynamics, requiring a new approach.                         

Previously, workplace training was often directed at changing the behavior of those who might engage in abusive behavior--statistically-speaking, a very small group. But this has been shown to be largely ineffective, absent very focused, longer-term interventions.                                                     

Instead, research suggests that a more powerful lever for preventing harassment is to change the potential harasser’s social environment: if a potential harasser feels that their coworkers will disapprove of their inappropriate behaviors, the individual will likely adjust their behavior. Thus, training should heavily focus on the attitudes and behaviors of the “healthy majority” of employees who have the power to create a social environment that is hostile to harassment--and also equip them with the ability to recognize, and appropriately intervene in, abusive incidents. This is accomplished through training that speaks to an individual’s values, reinforces existing positive norms of respectful and professional behavior in the workplace, and gives employees the opportunity to learn and practice using a variety of tools to intervene appropriately as bystanders.

Inclusive Design                                                      

In interactive training, design is the face and voice we present to our learners.                                               

Effective training will meet participants where they are, reflecting their work experiences, diverse identities, and cultural norms.  If learners can’t see themselves in the content—whether they don’t see characters who look like them, hear dialogue that sounds unnatural, or are presented with unrealistic or unrelatable scenarios--they’ll either tune out, or, worse, have a negative reaction. If one of the goals of training is to make employees more attuned to what is going on around them and able to recognize (and hopefully stop) concerning behavior, it is important to have scenarios that feel relevant and realistic to them.        

"Collecting and utilizing data from sexual harassment training programs is an incredibly powerful tool for gauging impact and maximizing the training program’s ROI "                                                

Given these stakes, the design of modern harassment training needs to make use of instructional design best practices. 


The potential for online training to greatly simplify the administration of training programs is not to be underestimated. Training material can seamlessly integrate with existing learning management systems (LMS) and allow for direct communication with learners. It can provide real-time tracking and reporting of employee engagement--and can be updated quickly upon the implementation of new legislative requirements or workplace policies.

And perhaps most importantly, online training can be reconfigured to create brief follow-up courses which reinforce previous learning in a way that feels new to the learner and build new skills--both of which are crucial for lasting impact.

The ability to administer the training at scale is particularly important for large organizations with geographically dispersed populations. For some organizations, employees may work in different types of workplaces: offices, warehouses, retail locations, construction sites, or home offices. For some of these workforces, training may be best achieved via mobile devices.

Delivering training in a way that enables all employees to participate, over time and regardless of location, is key to its effectiveness and impact.


Collecting and utilizing data from sexual harassment training programs is an incredibly powerful tool for gauging impact and maximizing the training program’s ROI.

Training should include anonymized surveys and assessments to collect data from employees--but not just to track participation or to test comprehension. Pre- and post-course attitudinal questions can measure progress in critical areas, such as how employees view various workplace behaviors, how equipped they feel to intervene in a concerning situation, or how to report witnessed misconduct.

This very rich data enables an employer, post-training, to craft highly-specific outreach initiatives to correct misperceptions and communicate organizational policies and values.

Advancements in technology, harassment prevention principles, and instructional design have provided us with a roadmap for addressing the critical issue of harassment in the workplace. It is imperative that we leverage these new tools, and thereby move away from the compliance-oriented training of the past to an approach that can truly impact workplace behavior.

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