Why workplace sexual harassment training doesn’t work

Here we go again. The last few weeks has seen a perfect storm of horrific allegations, shocking descriptions of toxic workplaces — and unsatisfactory responses from our leaders.

I don’t in any way want to downplay the seriousness of recent accounts and allegations. Quite the reverse. But my heartfelt response is: can we please just bloody well pull our finger out and do something about it?

From my perspective as a workplace trainer and consultant, what’s happening at Parliament House is a perfect example of why training and policies fail. We must assume that as a workplace, Parliament is ticking all their training boxes. But — and as a passionate trainer it pains me to say it — unless the conversation and supportive practices are continued outside the training room, workplace training is worthless.

In any organisation, leadership must set an example. They must prove at every point that they support, in theory and in practice, the principles of the training and policies. They have to walk the talk, or they lose all credibility and policy becomes merely hollow words.

As those of us working in this space all know, the Respect@Work report was tabled in January 2020. It found that 39 per cent of women (and 26 per cent of men) reported experiencing workplace sexual harassment in the last 5 years. Only 17 per cent reported it.

The report made 55 specific recommendations to progress away from the current reactive model, which waits until a complaint has been made (so it will only catch that 17 percent of cases, leaving the culture unsafe in the other 83 per cent). The recommendations aim for a more proactive approach requiring positive actions from employers to prevent harassment from occurring.

I use the word ‘unsafe’ with purpose. I am sometimes called in to mediate in organisations where a ‘Stop Bullying Order’ has been imposed under the Fair Work Act. One of the recommendations of the Respect@Work report is to implement a similar ‘Stop Sexual Harassment Order’, enabling an intervention overseen by the Fair Work Commission. This would help us squarely place sexual harassment within the context of Workplace Health and Safety, where it belongs. A workplace culture where sexual harassment is tolerated, explicitly or implicitly, is an unsafe workplace. 

Yes, this particular recommendation is still acting after the fact and often when an organisation is already in crisis. But for me, clearly calling out and identifying sexual harassment as an issue provides support for the victim, and forces the employer to face it squarely.

I have seen how putting structure, context and expert intervention around an issue offers an opportunity for both the respondent and the organisation to learn and address the harm caused. But it’s the underlying culture — the standard we walk past — that really needs to be transformed. And that’s not something that will happen after a few training sessions — it’s ongoing work that requires systemic change and full government support. The Respect@Work report outlines exactly how to do it.

We have everything we need.So let’s pull our finger out and do something, shall we?

If you’d like to have an initial discussion about sexual harassment frameworks, conflict resolution or other workplace behavioural issues, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. I can be contacted by email at debbie@dksonin.com.au, on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/debbiesonin or by phone on 0413 145 925.

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