recently rewrote the sexual-harassment training program she uses at her company to add some colorful examples. She didn’t have to look very far.
She ticks off several big names in entertainment, politics and media whose alleged sexual misconduct was an open secret among their co-workers for years. The lesson, she tells her colleagues at Pyrotek, a Spokane, Wash., manufacturing and engineering company: If you know that a co-worker is guilty of sexual harassment, you need to speak up, no matter how powerful the perp.
The wave of scandals has prompted some companies to revise their sexual-harassment training programs now that it has become clear that they’re falling short. Some are extending mandatory training beyond management to employees at all levels, and increasing the frequency. Others are urging employees in internal communiqués and blog posts to speak up if they witness bad behavior. And many are broadening the focus of their training programs, beyond following the letter of the law to promoting more respectful behavior in general.
The allegations have shown how ignoring this problem can ruin the lives of women and men affected by it. Careers are at stake. So, too, are companies’ reputations.
This climate is especially tricky, given how common office romance can be. A 2016 survey of 3,411 full-time workers across the U.S. by the employment site CareerBuilder found 41% of respondents had dated a co-worker.
Ms. Barros, Pyrotek’s human-resources director, has shifted her emphasis from simply explaining federal antidiscrimination laws and rules to fostering a workplace culture of tolerance, acceptance and civility, so people can talk freely to each other about their behavior. “If I offend somebody, I want them to feel comfortable coming to me” and discussing it openly, she says.
Vox Media will require all 950 of its employees to take an online anti-harassment training program by Everfi, a Washington, D.C., education technology company, starting in January, says
vice president of people and culture. An outside law firm is developing an additional training program for about 200 managers, she says. Vox Media announced the dismissal of an executive for inappropriate behavior in October.
Sexual harassment training has been a fixture among U.S. employers since the 1990s, in response to two Supreme Court rulings and federal guidelines on enforcing antidiscrimination laws. Several states, including California and Connecticut, have since passed laws requiring training.
Training practices drew fire in 2016 from a bipartisan Equal Employment Opportunity Commission task force, which faulted employers for focusing too narrowly on following the letter of the law to avoid getting sued. The report called for more emphasis on fostering a respectful workplace culture, and more training to encourage bystanders to report bad behavior when they see it.
The recent onslaught of sexual-harassment allegations suggests the criticisms were on target. “Some employers thought they didn’t have a problem because nobody had complained,” says
a Pittsburgh-area-based adviser on ethics to the Society for Human Resource Management. “Now we all know that doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem.”
Bystanders often keep quiet about offensive behavior by powerful figures because they assume their employer accepts or even approves of it and fear personal repercussions if they report it.
president of SLS Consulting LLC in Santee, S.C., recently was asked to investigate allegations against a manager at a client company. He was accused of showing favoritism toward a subordinate while dating her, then retaliating after the relationship soured by firing her. When Ms. Sellers questioned the couple’s co-workers, the response was, “Yeah, I knew that was going on.” But they feared that speaking up would jeopardize their jobs, she says.
Corporate trainers say rank-and-file employees who tended to sit silently through anti-harassment training in the past are raising more questions. Pittsburgh HR consultant Gillian Florentine coached a salesman in a recent session who brought up an awkward situation he had witnessed: A male co-worker had cornered a female colleague in the hallway, leaning in as he talked to her. The woman’s expression showed she was clearly uncomfortable but had no room to back away. The salesman said he was concerned but didn’t know what to say, so he kept walking.
“Let’s rewind history,” Ms. Florentine says she told the salesman. She helped him figure out words he might have used to approach the man later and tell him his behavior seemed out of line.
Other employees, however, push back against the nuances of anti-harassment law.
a Toledo, Ohio, employment attorney who conducts training sessions, says some employees are frustrated to learn that the distinction between acceptable and problematic behavior under the law can depend on how the person on the receiving end feels about the exchange
It may be fine to tell a co-worker, “You look nice. That’s a great dress,” for example, unless you say it repeatedly and look at her in a way that makes her uncomfortable, creating a hostile work environment, says Ms. Wise, an adviser on labor-relations issues for the Society for Human Resource Management. The response she hears from some men, she says, is, “That’s ridiculous. I can never talk to a woman in the workplace again.”
Traliant, an online training company founded in 2016, added 95 of its 255 clients during the two months since multiple women accused Hollywood producer
of sexual misconduct this fall. Mr. Weinstein has apologized for his past behavior with colleagues, but a spokeswoman says he denies allegations of nonconsensual sex and says he never retaliated against any women for refusing his advances.
The Traliant program awards points to employees for their performance, and participants can compare their scores on a leaderboard, says
co-founder of the Manhattan Beach, Calif., company.
a 25-year-old engineer at MacDonald-Miller Facility Solutions, a Seattle mechanical contractor that uses Traliant’s anti-harassment program, says it sparked a friendly rivalry among his colleagues, and a discussion about whether it’s ever OK for a supervisor to ask a subordinate out on a date.
Some employers with well-established anti-harassment training programs are taking additional steps to get employees to open up about the issue. In a blog post last week, Mastercard chief human resources officer
wrote that in many cases in the news, “complicit silence” among co-workers allowed problems to take root. Stressing Mastercard’s commitment to decency and inclusion, Mr. Fraccaro said he’d be “sponsoring opportunities for employees to come together and talk candidly” about the issue.
Informal discussion groups of 15 to 20 employees at all levels will begin meeting early next year, Mr. Fraccaro said in an interview. “This is really a turning point,” he says, “not just in the workplace, but in society as well.”
Write to Sue Shellenbarger at Sue.Shellenbarger@wsj.com