Q: In light of recent events in the news, my company is requiring all employees to go through sexual harassment training. I would never dream of harassing anyone and neither would my coworkers. Our group works great together, and we’ve never had any complaints. So why are they making us do this?
A: Kudos to your company for taking steps to ensure their employees are fully aware of the issues around sexual harassment. Many states have laws regarding workplace sexual harassment training and policy requirements depending on the organization’s size, so there may be a legal aspect behind this in addition to a moral motivation. Based on the sensitivity of these issues—and on the seemingly “small” ways harassment can manifest itself— everyone needs to develop a heightened awareness of how they are treating coworkers. Casual comments, snide jokes, or outwardly “harmless” compliments on someone’s appearance all have the potential of creating an uncomfortable work environment, and your company wants to make sure you and your colleagues have an awareness of what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.
It’s terrific that you view your group as working well together and that you’ve never heard of any complaints. But you may not actually know that there haven’t been any. These issues are handled with great sensitivity and confidentiality. Organizations often have a set process for addressing and investigating potential issues, and there are obviously many reasons why much of this information would be kept confidential and not be common knowledge for the rest of the team. Consider the possibility that someone on your team isn’t comfortable with something, but he or she fears retribution or alienation at work and hasn’t spoken up about it. Your company is providing an opportunity for this topic to be discussed, especially for anyone who worries about job security or feels unsure of how to handle the situation or who to talk to. This training will show them a path to getting the support they may need. And while you personally may not have any issues at work, it doesn’t hurt to have the knowledge and language to deal with any kind of harassment behavior you might witness or your loved ones might face in other areas of life.
Part of your concern about this training might be the effect you think it will have on what seems to be a close, friendly team culture. Company cultures run the gamut from very formal and conservative to very casual and sociable—but no matter what, the languages and behaviors associated with sexual harassment have no place in any work environment. You won’t lose a warm, friendly culture by being attuned to the issues that are going to be brought up in this training. You can connect and build relationships with your colleagues in countless ways that don’t involve any potentially inappropriate touching or comments—“How was your weekend? Isn’t this weather lovely? How did that presentation go last week?” Your main concern should be to take the other parties’ desires and comfort levels as the most important factor in your interactions. This not only means assessing any discomfort and immediately ceasing or adjusting behavior; it also means contributing to an environment in which people feel free to voice their discomfort or preferences for interactions without any fear of negative backlash.
So while it may seem inconvenient to you to spend your afternoon in a training session, consider this an opportunity to learn more about why so many organizations are facing these challenges and to understand how lucky you are that it doesn’t seem to be a presenting issue at your company. Nothing but positive things can result from this—an informed, aware, and understanding workforce and an environment in which everyone feels comfortable and able to voice any concerns.