T his white paper discusses the current state of sexual harassment prevention training, why the majority of current training strategies are failing, and what approach can be taken to achieve positive behavior change in the workplace.

The typical assumption is that some kind of action is better than no action at all, but our results suggest that this assumption is wrong and potentially dangerous.

The Unexpected Effects of a Sexual Harassment Educational Program


Despite the abundance of off-the-shelf Sexual Harassment Prevention trainings, the initial qualitative feedback we received from both clients and industry peers was consistent. Most trainings on the market fall prey to one of four issues:

Deductive rather than inductive.

Traditional training content is heavy in legalese, attempting to convert a nuanced, gray-scale social skill into absolute terms. The presentation style also lends itself to a passive learning experience, instead of allowing trainees to make the education personal and meaningful.

Lack of authenticity and EQ.

Sexual Harassment e-learning and videos felt “cheesy” and inauthentic, leading to a lack of both emotional and cognitive investment from the learner and, paradoxically, inherently build resentment around the issue.

Overemphasis on particular actions.

Social interactions are complex, and most training puts so much emphasis on a particular form of harassment that the learner ignores how it may be analogous to an action they feel is innocuous. Because they have not been thinking critically about harassment, they may not even see how their own actions could be perceived.

Behavior change is absent or minimized.

Most trainings are front-heavy with identifying harassment, then deferring to a nebulous company policy (which may not even exist), rather than giving learners

Why Sexual Harassment Prevention Isn’t Working? A thorough study released in 2016 by the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) found that, “Much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool – it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability.”

“In most cases, employers are creating these policies more to protect themselves than to protect employees,” claims Lauren Edelman, a professor at the law school of the University of California at Berkeley. “We have reason to believe that maybe it’s counterproductive.” And in fact, many studies have shown that the current state of sexual harassment training is most likely counterproductive.

But why would sexual harassment training be counterproductive?

First, the majority of training focuses on defining what sexual harassment is in legal terms. As most trainers know, defining a term does not correlate to a change in behavior.

Second, placing too much importance on the legal ramifications of harassment can work against the training.

Frank Dobbin, Professor of Sociology at Harvard University advises, “As social scientists have found, people often rebel against rules to assert their autonomy. Try to coerce me to do X, Y, or Z, and I’ll do the opposite just to prove that I’m my own person.

Why Sexual Harassment Prevention Isn’t Working? “By headlining the legal case for diversity and trotting out stories of huge settlements, companies issue an implied threat: ‘Discriminate, and the company will pay the price’… but threats, or ‘negative incentives,’ don’t win converts.”

Sexual harassment training “appears to make some men feel threatened and afraid that they will be subject to false accusations,” claims Shereen Bingham, professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha school of communication. “As a result, they may respond in a defensive manner.”

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