Training Programs

Q&A: Fixing What’s Missing from Your Sexual Harassment Training

By Ken Cooper

Sexual harassment at work

There are a lot of questions that HR professionals are asking about how to prevent sexual harassment in their workplaces. In our webinar, “Fixing What’s Missing From Your Sexual Harassment Training,” with consultant and author Ken Cooper, we had so many questions pouring in that Ken was happy to extend the webinar Q&A to a blog post.

Check out these questions with Ken’s responses to better understand what you can do to prevent sexual harassment at work:

1. As a newly hired generalist, I’ve been tasked with recruiting, and when I showed a resume to the CFO, they responded, “Name… sounds like a porn star name” as a joke. I’m not sure how to respond. What do you suggest professionals should do with executives who may behave badly?

There’s no one right answer for all situations and all organizations. It’s a judgment call on what you think is the best option. That said…

One… You can indicate directly that something is unwelcome. This is the approach that the EEOC recommends initially for low-severity incidents. You can do it with body language, with a facial reaction, with a sound, or with a comment such as, “Oh boy, THAT’s uncomfortable. Let’s don’t go THERE!”

Two… You ALWAYS have the right to reach out to a contact designated in your Employee Policy Manual—typically your supervisor, another manager, the HR hotline, or whatever. Personally, I like the idea of talking to your supervisor about an incident like this with an executive, and asking for some coaching on how to handle it. That should start the ball rolling in a number of different ways.

Three… You might simply bide your time. It wasn’t WAY over the line, just sidling up to it. Call it a red flag, if you will. Perhaps it was a one-off lapse in judgment, and nothing like it ever happens again. If so, good, and life goes on. But if something like this reoccurs, you now have a couple of data points that suggest that this may be a pattern of behavior. The multiple incidents will lend some weight to your concerns when you inform someone. Then it’s up to the HR folks to handle it with the CFO.

2. How do you change the behavior and culture when the leadership is guilty?

One of the tenets of a successful sexual harassment prevention program is setting the right culture. That starts at the top. If executive leadership isn’t committed to providing a harassment-free workplace, then it’s hard to make it happen from a lower level because everybody understands that leadership doesn’t really “mean it.”

Leadership needs to understand (or be told) that sexual harassment prevention is not only an ethical issue, it’s a major legal issue, a major financial issue, a major productivity issue, and a major PR issue. If you want a truly engaged workforce, if you want the best business results (and executive bonuses), then you can’t tolerate sexual harassment.

3. Can you elaborate more on ramifications for bystanders and training people on how to intervene?

This could be a unique webinar all by itself. And yes, it’s a critical skill for all employees to have in discouraging and halting abusive behavior.

Here’s an article discussing “The Bystander Effect.”

Here’s a great summary of the “4 D’s” and the related issue of safety for someone intervening in an incident.

An online search will get you more good information.


4. What’s a recommended amount of time for sexual harassment training sessions or courses? Online or instructor-led?

My in-person seminars for all employees typically run two hours, with a short break in the middle. That leaves plenty of time for all the content, plus a discussion of all the questions that come up. That’s then followed up with a 90-minute session for supervisors, managers, and executives—AFTER they’ve attended the all-employee meeting along with their troops. There is also special training for HR, risk management, legal, etc., that can last up to a half-day. This covers handling of the entire topic, processes, investigations, and so on.

Elearning can replace the “learn” portion of these seminars. You can then gather employees for an in-person or live webinar session for the “apply” part, where you can hold discussions and answer questions. How long those are depends upon how many issues come up.


5. How do you get more tenured employees to adapt to best practices?

I’m reading between the lines that the long-timers are dragging their feet, or locked in denial. A great wake-up call for them is using an opening quiz question in training that makes the point,“it can come out of your own pocket if you blow this.” You also need to firmly, REALLY firmly, establish the “zero tolerance” message—preferably directly from the mouth of a top executive.

Employees need to know they can be as smug and smarmy about this as they want, but that they’re betting their careers if they don’t get with the program. So don’t be afraid to openly pound your deniers in the training. Everyone else will appreciate it.


6. How do you prevent offenders from focusing on other “worse” actions, thinking that their behaviors aren’t that bad?

In the training sessions, I label this the “I don’t rob banks, I only mug little old ladies” attitude… like that supposedly makes it better.

I tell these deniers, “Wrong is wrong. It’s against the LAW. It’s ILLEGAL. All of it. You can be personally sued for it. You can be fired for it. And comparing yourself to others is for teenagers. You’re at work now. You need to grow up, and think logically. We’ll talk about your lack of human decency towards others later.” (You can tell I’m not particularly gentle with deniers.) 

7. How do you go about researching rumors without starting a fishing expedition?

Behaviorally, the rumor mill is a good early warning source. When there are rumors, then some people think it’s credible that some incident has happened. They may be right. They may be wrong. But there’s a root cause for the comments somewhere. You need to track down that root cause.

Legally, once such comments come to the attention of the organization, you have to “go fishing.” You don’t have a choice. You don’t have to be heavy-handed about it, but the comments definitely need to be investigated.

Get your HR pros involved. They’ll walk you through the process, or maybe even help you do it. If you are the HR rep, then getting training on how to conduct investigations in a discretionary manner will probably be helpful.

8. Is it legal for an HR rep to inform their direct supervisor of a sexual harassment complaint made against another employee?

I can’t provide legal advice, but I can say that employers are encouraged to never promise confidentiality concerning a sexual harassment investigation, primarily because you never know where that investigation will lead, and whom you’ll have to talk to.

What most employers promise is to handle the investigation with discretion, and to share facts on a need-to-know basis. That said, it seems reasonable that HR professionals would share something as important as a sexual harassment complaint with their direct supervisors—especially since it’s a regular practice of HR pros to handle sensitive information.


9. With all the confidentiality that shrouds the punishment of harassers, how do you make an example of someone so employees know there really is zero tolerance for harassment in your workplace?

True, most organizations keep employee actions confidential, and this extends to discipline. But you can subtly get the message out. First, the discipline may well be obvious. There might be a transfer, a demotion, a termination, or a change in responsibilities. Second, you can use a team meeting to reinforce the proper behaviors that you expect. Then the team can readily connect the dots, if the rumor mill hasn’t already done that for you.

Another way to make this point, if your organization is big enough, is to use actual examples that have occurred at the organization, with the details sanitized to protect those involved. The theme is, “Here’s how we deal with offenders.” If that’s not an option, there are enough war stories out there on the internet, famous and not-so-famous, to get anyone’s attention. So use those if you have to.


10. How do you handle a situation after an investigation has led to a “he said/she said” result?

That’s one of the reasons you should only promise discretion rather than confidentiality. When this occurs, you have to look for third-party verification. Sometimes there isn’t any, and that makes it difficult. About all you can do then is review the standards, and tell everyone you’re taking a no-tolerance stance on this point.

But interestingly enough, there’s rarely a total lack of other evidence. What’s far more likely to occur, as you’ve seen with the big public scandals, is that when one person comes forward with a complaint, suddenly the gates open up. Lots of other targets come forward. So you end up with all kinds of corroboration.

The reason is that harassment is a pattern of behavior for offenders. It’s how they treat people. So while you might have someone fixated on a single individual, the more likely situation is that you have someone harassing lots of targets. It’s the reality behind #MeToo.

11. The offender stereotypes that were identified were all male-oriented, but are there versions that pertain more to female offenders?

The concept of a female offender is a complex and controversial topic, one that requires more time than the webinar had available to cover properly. To keep things moving, my terminology generally assumed a male offender and female target.

People are always interested in the reverse—a female offender with a male target. But that’s actually only the fourth most likely incident, making up less than 0.6% of the cases. The second most likely is male same-sex harassment of another male. And the third most likely is female same-sex harassment of another female.

That said, my seminar attendees over the years have indeed identified female offender stereotypes also, and given them names such as the Tease, the Mother Figure, and the False Victim, among others. But that’ll have to be a discussion for another day when we can go more in-depth.


12. What are your suggestions for handling this behavior when a vendor or customer is the harasser and an employee is the target?

It’s the new/old saying, “Customers are not always right, but they’re always the customer.”

According to the EEOC, an employer is responsible for employees who, in performing their jobs, are mistreated by customers or the public. The employer has to make it stop, whether or not that makes the customer or vendor unhappy.

Unfortunately, some employers put money ahead of employees, and accommodate customers no matter how they act. That creates liability for the employer, and makes it hard to retain an engaged workforce that delivers great customer service.

Bottom line – you have to do whatever it takes to stop abusive customer behavior. Law trumps revenue.


13. If two same-sex employees crack sexual jokes, and bystanders feel uncomfortable with the continuous joking around and claim harassment or a hostile environment, does it matter if they are male or female?

The gender of the employees cracking jokes versus the bystanders is immaterial. You’re not excused when you’re talking or joking about a protected class that you’re a member of. It’s offensive behavior regarding a protected class, and has to stop.

14. Please speak to how cultural differences affect what is seen as sexual harassment.

This is a very important point. There’s a “reasonable person” concept in the definition of sexual harassment. As you can imagine, what’s generally unreasonable in the U.S. may be totally reasonable in another country.

The important thing to remember is that sexual harassment is an issue arising from U.S. law. So if you’re working in the U.S., or you’re working for a U.S. company somewhere in the world, or you’re doing business with the employees of a U.S. company, then it’s imperative that you follow the U.S. requirements for non-discriminatory behavior.

15. What if three co-workers go out on a weekend, and one employee touches another inappropriately? Is it reportable? Should there be an investigation?

One of the issues about harassment in the workplace is that a target can’t necessarily get away from the offender. They may be forced to work together as part of the job. That puts a different dynamic on the situation.

Ideally, your Employee Policy Manual has some language in it that addresses negative behavior outside the workplace that affects the employer. That makes it easy to take action on situations like these. Even absent of that language, a complaint is a complaint, and has to be investigated. Your labor law advisor can guide you from there.

Socially, the #MeToo movement serves as an example of why it’s worthwhile to look into these types of situations – offenders tend to harass targets as a pattern in their behavior. So an incident like this could be only the initial symptom of a far bigger problem, a possibility that it makes sense to look into.

Thanks for answering all those questions, Ken!

If you found this Q&A helpful and want to know more about providing the kind of training that eradicates sexual harassment from your organization, check out the on-demand version of Ken’s webinar!

About Ken Cooper

Ken is the founder of CooperComm, Inc., a technology-based content development, delivery, and consulting provider headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri. He has over 40 years’ experience as a training consultant and speaker, and has delivered over 3,000 classroom seminars, live satellite TV broadcasts, and recorded video-based e-learning programs.

Ken is the author of Stop It Now, one of the first books ever to address workplace sexual harassment, BodyBusiness, a guide to workplace nonverbal communication, and he is co-author of Taming the Terrible Too’s of Training. Ken has also written for publications such as Chief Learning Officer, Training, Trainer’s Workshop, Leadership Excellence, and Entrepreneur, among many others.

Find more resources from Ken on preventing sexual harassment at work on his website,

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