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You can vote to mandate sexual-harassment training for Philly city employees. But will it work?

Plus, 10 tips from experts about how to develop a successful sexual harassment-training program.

When voters enter the booth Tuesday in Philadelphia, they’ll be asked: Should Philadelphia mandate all city workers receive sexual-harassment training?
When voters enter the booth Tuesday in Philadelphia, they’ll be asked: Should Philadelphia mandate all city workers receive sexual-harassment training?Read moreED HILLE / Staff Photographer

When voters enter the booth Tuesday in Philadelphia, they'll be asked: Should Philadelphia mandate all city workers receive sexual-harassment training?

Considering the seismic #MeToo movement's effects in every corner of the working world, that might seem to be a no-brainer. But what would that training actually look like? And would it prevent sexual harassment?

At this point, no one knows.

Experts in sexual-harassment training say it's effective at preventing sexual harassment and empowering employees to report only if designed properly. Some research shows that it can even have the opposite effect: In the worst cases, these training programs can be detrimental to reporting environments and even empower people doing the harassing.

In a bit of a Catch-22, voters won't know whether they will be paying for the effective or ineffective variety: The city's training program won't be designed "until we get the official green light from voters," said Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who sponsored legislation authorizing the ballot question.

City spokesman Mike Dunn said the administration supports the measure, and should it pass, the Office of Labor Relations will work in conjunction with the Mayor's Office and the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer to develop the program. He said those efforts will be in addition to an internal review that has been underway since last fall that is examining all current safeguards, training, and investigatory methods.

The Mayor's Office will also consider recommendations from City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, who is examining the city's sexual-harassment policies. A spokeswoman for Rhynhart said that audit, expected to be released by June, will likely include a recommendation of mandatory "high-quality" sexual-harassment training.

Currently, sexual-harassment training is required for rank-and-file city employees only when a supervisor deems it necessary. The new legislation would establish the standard as mandatory training that takes place on a basis of every one to three years.

No matter what is decided, experts roundly agree: Training isn't a fix-all, but rather should be part of a holistic approach that includes other steps such as updating policies, strictly enforcing rules, and promoting more women.

"The message of the training has to be that the city thinks this is important," said Deborah Weinstein, CEO of the Philadelphia-based Weinstein Group and a longtime trainer around sexual harassment. "The culture has to be that the policies and procedures have teeth."

Sexual-harassment training popularized in workplaces over the last 30 years has been largely ineffective in terms of preventing sexual harassment, because it was focused on "simply avoiding legal liability," according to a 2016 report from a task force charged by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Eric Meyer, a partner at the Philadelphia office of the FisherBroyles law firm, conducts antiharassment training and said effective training is most helpful for people who might be reporting it. As for the perpetrators? "People basically know what sexual harassment is," he said. That's why training sessions can be as much about establishing accountability as they are about education.

"So now it is about instilling trust in the employees that the organization has their back … that there are no free passes," Meyer said. "Whether it's the person who sits in the C-Suite or the person who cleans the C-Suite, the rules are applied the same way."

Below are 10 recommendations from experts and the EEOC when developing a sexual-harassment training regimen.

1. Conduct training in person

Sexual-harassment training programs are most effective when they're done in an interactive environment where questions are encouraged. Skip the online modules.

2. Tailor the training

Reynolds Brown said she'll advocate for customized training programs, as office employees might require different training than trade workers or police. Weinstein said it's also important that supervisors get different training than rank-and-file employees. She said supervisors "need to know that there are rules and that there are consequences." On the other hand, staffers need to be "told it is safe to come forward and complain and that there will be no retaliation," she said.

3. Keep it short and entertaining

Gina Ameci, a labor and employment attorney at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, said training programs should be as interactive as possible. They should last just a couple of hours and "need to be entertaining."

And, she added, grab coffee and doughnuts beforehand, because if you want to keep attention high, "food is a necessary evil."

4. Focus on building trust

Meyer said that since #MeToo, he's changed his training programs to focus more on fostering trust in the upper echelons of an organization, telling managers and supervisors that sexual-harassment training is as much about building confidence and trust in them as it is about educating employees about policies.

"I tell people, 'Forget about what the law says,'" he said. "`You should be focused on what is allowed in this workplace. I'm trying to educate you about your rights, your responsibilities, and how we can have a workplace that's harassment-free.' "

5. Clarify what’s OK outside of work

Meyer said training programs should also remind employees that what they do off the clock can affect their employment, particularly as it relates to social media. For example, he said, if someone posts something harassing about a coworker online at nighttime, but that person reads it at 10 a.m. the next day at work, that "just became a work problem."

6. Include “civility” training

In recent years, some sexual-harassment training programs have been rebranded as "workplace civility" education. In other words, these programs tell employees what to do — treat one another with respect — as opposed to what not to do. The EEOC recommends that all employers consider implementing some form of civility training into their employee education.

7. Emphasize bystander intervention

The EEOC recommends including directions for bystanders in any sexual-harassment training. Weinstein said this can include instructions on how to report behavior they see or hear about. It can also include tips for how to intervene, whether that's speaking to the perpetrator after — with a stern "that joke wasn't funny" — or simply interrupting the situation to get one party out of the interaction before it escalates, Weinstein said.

8. Include language about traditionally marginalized groups

Studies show racial and gender minorities are subjected to high rates of sexual harassment in the workplace. Meyer said it's important that sexual-harassment training programs emphasize that harassment is a form of discrimination.

9. Avoid the terms “harasser” and “victim”

These words can exacerbate gender stereotypes in the workplace, studies show.

10. Follow up

Meyer said that while sexual-harassment training should be part of training for new employees, he recommended annual training sessions.