Why Sexual Harassment Training Fails — and How to Fix It

With a tide of sexual abuse cases making headlines and ending careers, the subject of sexual harassment training is getting a lot of press. Whether it’s companies promising “better training” or legislators advocating for sexual harassment training on the Hill, many people think it’s a great solution — or step forward — for a very serious problem.

While a simple training program certainly sounds nice, there’s a great deal of evidence that it doesn’t work. That evidence also comes with information about why it isn’t effective. Perhaps now that the subject is firmly entrenched in public discourse, it’s time to have a conversation about how to develop effective sexual harassment training that has a meaningful impact on participants.

Here’s the problem with this kind of training, along with corporate policies surrounding sexual misconduct: They’re primarily designed as a risk mitigation tactic.

The goal isn’t to protect employees from harassment, or to create an environment where they can safely report it, but rather to limit the possibility that a company will get sued. And that’s not a great foundation for success.

There’s a big gap between clearly illegal conduct and behavior that shouldn’t be tolerated. Many companies decline to bridge that gap in training because it exposes them to risk.

So, for example, employees learn that sexually assaulting someone at an office Christmas party is unacceptable, and it will result in consequences if reported. But they might not learn about how sexualized remarks are also inappropriate, or how employees should be allowed to ask people to refrain from casual physical contact like touching or hugging if they feel uncomfortable.

Such training tends to be very pro forma, presented in a way that doesn’t genuinely engage people and or make them interact with each other and the content. It’s common to use online classes, or to rely on workbooks, videos and other canned materials. Face-to-face classes tend to be more effective, but they’re also more expensive — and the curriculum still needs to be designed with care.

Furthermore, managers and higher-ups are often exempt from training, even though they’re in a position to abuse power. When managers don’t learn about what sexual harassment looks like, it can have a chilling effect on creating a safe workplace culture. Whether managers are abusing their power to harass people or not taking reports seriously because they don’t see the problem, employees start to feel unsafe.

So what does work?

A good training should be rooted in a company code of conduct that is thoughtful, detailed and specific, covering both the work environment and offsite events. It should clearly describe the kinds of behavior that are not okay, and provide people with information on how to report harassment. It should also outline the potential penalties, so employees understand the consequences of violating the code of conduct.

That information should be used in accessible, face-to-face training developed specifically for that workplace. Everyone in the company should be required to complete the training, as well as refreshers to make sure they’re current on company policy. This may include breakouts and group sessions for more complex, sensitive conversations.

And the training must then be supported with a meaningful system of implementation: When someone reports harassment, that report should go somewhere, and the complainant should be able to track the status of the report. When an investigation uncovers evidence of misconduct, there should be consequences. And when possible, companies should be transparent about these investigations to demonstrate that allegations are taken seriously.

Researchers also find that strong anti-harassment programs result in more women in leadership — and less harassment. So those proposals to replace booted high-profile harassers with women aren’t too far off the mark.

Take Action!

If your workplace has sexual harassment training or is considering adopting it, talk with human resources and ask them if they’d consider a thorough revamp, using evidence-based methods. In the meantime, you can join Care2 members in calling for action on the many — and growing — cases of sexual harassment in the news.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore


Marie W
Marie W1 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

Ellie M
Ellie M7 months ago


Camilla Vaga
Camilla Vaga7 months ago


Leo Custer
Leo C7 months ago

Thank you for sharing!

Janis K
Janis K7 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara7 months ago

Younger people are trained from birth to respect older which is what makes it so easy for predators and casual harassers. Teach young people that older people are not always to be respected and why.

Mary B
Mary B7 months ago

Sexual harassment happens in so many other places besides corporations and factories or heavily populated areas, and when it happens when you're young you just have no clue as to what it is, just a sense that somebody just did something that hurt or embarrassed you. I guess it must start with teaching respect for self so you know what 'respect' even is and how it feels. I've found that I can show consideration , appreciation and respect to someone who's never had it,and they STILL don't know that's what they're getting because it is just so foreign to them.

Roberto M
Roberto M7 months ago

interesting point of view

Janis K
Janis K7 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

Winn Adams
Winn A7 months ago