Learn what workplace sexual harassment is and how your organization can stay compliant with harassment training laws.
Employers have a legal obligation to ensure employees have a safe and secure workplace. Part of creating that safe environment requires eliminating sexual harassment, which is sometimes easier said than done. The line of what constitutes workplace sexual harassment can be blurred – what one employee considers a harmless gesture another might perceive as an unwanted sexual pass. To get all employees on the same page about what sexual harassment is, employers are best served providing their team with sexual harassment prevention training.
What is sexual harassment prevention training?
Sexual harassment prevention training is used to educate employers and employees about sexual harassment and what type of behavior is unacceptable in the workplace. Although some inaccurately believe that an action must be abusive or criminal to constitute sexual harassment, the reality is that any uncomfortable or unwelcome sexual advance is considered sexual harassment. Training on this topic helps ensure your entire team understands this.
While some states have specific requirements for sexual harassment training, all employers should address the issue through a combination of interactive training (e.g., videos, presentations), open dialogue and an ongoing complaint process.
"Employers in some states are required to provide interactive training where employees learn through real-world examples and open dialogue," Kelly DuFord Williams, founder and managing partner of Slate Law Group, told business.com. "Additionally, businesses are encouraged to develop a complaint process to compassionately field employee concerns, and to address those concerns immediately."
Is sexual harassment training legally required?
There are instances when sexual harassment prevention training is legally required. However, regardless of the legal requirements, it is always advised to provide employees with anti-harassment training to create a safe workspace and healthy company culture.
There currently are no federal laws that require businesses to provide employees with sexual harassment training, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't. Employers are best served being proactive in preventing sexual harassment. Federal laws, like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibit sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Violations come with potentially severe consequences.
Employers who have prevention policies in place and provide sexual harassment prevention training are often in a better position than those who don't should an employee file a sexual harassment lawsuit. David Miller, attorney and shareholder of Bryant Miller Olive, said federal anti-discrimination laws heavily incentivize employers to give sexual harassment prevention training by creating an affirmative defense to lawsuits if they do it right.
"Doing it right means having a policy, an effective policy, disseminating the policy, and making sure everyone understands it – including the part with the complaint procedure," said Miller. "If you check all those boxes, you get a defense against a claim that a co-worker sexually harassed an employee, if she unreasonably failed to take advantage of the procedure."
Six states currently require employers to provide sexual harassment training to their employees: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, and New York. Each state has its own training requirements for who needs to be trained, and how often.
For example, California employers with at least five employees must provide two hours of sexual harassment training for supervisors and one hour of training for non-supervisors every two years. In Illinois, all employers must provide sexual harassment training to every employee every year. The law dictates what information the training must include, as well as industry-specific requirements for restaurant and bar owners.
Who needs to take sexual harassment training?
Some state laws dictate which employees must take sexual harassment training and how often. However, everyone should take the training regardless of status or seniority. For example, full-time, part-time, and temporary employees should all be trained, as well as interns, entry-level employees, supervisors, managers, volunteers, independent contractors and C-suite executives.
"Any employee can commit [sexual harassment] and any one of them can have it committed against them," said Miller. "You want to prevent that. And if the prevention part fails, you want that affirmative defense."
How to comply with sexual harassment training requirements
The best way to comply with sexual harassment training requirements is to start by determining what your state requires. If your state has no requirements, then you can follow another state's protocol as a general guideline. Additionally, there are a few other steps you can take to ensure compliance, like speaking with an attorney, updating your employee handbook and guidelines, and implementing continued training.
Speak with legal counsel.
To stay compliant with sexual harassment training requirements, it is best to get advice from your legal counsel. Specific training requirements vary between states and industries; for example, California mandates educators with expertise in preventing harassment must provide the training. An attorney can help ensure you understand and comply with the laws that apply directly to your business.
"It is paramount to seek the advice of an employment attorney that can guarantee your employee handbook, procedures and training are in accordance with the law and that your employees and managers and other staff are well acquainted with what constitutes inappropriate behavior that makes others 'uncomfortable,'" said Williams.
Update your policies and employee handbook.
Your employee handbook should always remain up to date with your business's current guidelines and procedures in accordance with state and federal laws. If you modify your sexual harassment training program or anti-harassment guidelines, update your employee handbook to reflect the new policies. Ensure all employees have access to the handbook and thoroughly understand what is expected of them.
"If a business does not have an adequate employee handbook, correct procedures, support for their employees, methods of lodging complaints and redress, then they will not only run afoul of the law but may possibly open themselves up to punitive damages," said Williams.
Practice continued training.
Training employees on sexual harassment is not a one-time thing. Regardless of how often your state dictates employees need to be training on the subject (e.g., annually, every two years), it is imperative to create a training process that is followed and updated throughout the lifetime of your business.
Sexual harassment training programs
Depending on state requirements, employers can access in-person or online sexual harassment prevention training courses. We consulted with legal experts and HR professionals to find a few sexual harassment training programs to get you started.
- Easy Llama: This is one of the best websites for sexual harassment training, especially for mobile workforces. It offers interactive, bite-sized training episodes that are designed to be watched on the go, so your team can complete their training anytime, anywhere. It comes with real-time tracking and reporting and integrates with major HR and LMS tools. State-specific training is available, so you can be sure you are maintaining compliance. Rates vary between $9.95 and $13.95 per training.
- HR Classroom: Employers can access a variety of employee and supervisor training courses on several subjects, including sexual harassment prevention, through HR Classroom. The sexual harassment prevention courses are available in both English and Spanish. HR Classroom offers state-specific courses and a version for Canada. The web-based courses include details about sexual harassment and employer policies, as well as quizzes.
- Inspired eLearning: Employers who need to conduct a variety of HR and workplace harassment prevention training may want to consider the courses offered by Inspired eLearning. You can browse the training course library or shop by category (HR training, employees, supervisors, state-specific). Courses run as low as $18.33 per training.
- State-provided training courses: Many states offer free online sexual harassment training courses. For example, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) provides courses on preventing sexual harassment and abusive conduct in the workplace that satisfy the state's legal training requirements. Similarly, New York State offers free sexual harassment training videos that satisfy most state minimum requirements (except the video alone is not considered "interactive").
- Wit & Reason: For those who want a customized training experience, Wit & Reason offers several custom workshops and training on topics like sexual harassment prevention, workplace violence prevention and improving workplace culture. Services are adaptable to your desired timeframe (e.g., one hour, two hours, a series of services over multiple days).
Even if you plan to use one of these services, you should still consult an attorney before implementing them to ensure they fulfill any and all legal obligations.