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  • Roxanne Petraeus

Disrupt Industries, Don’t Break Laws

This article was originally published to Medium on August 26, 2020.


If you have palm trees outside your office, this could apply to you.

This year has lasted approximately a million years, but, as hard as it is to believe, 2021 is around the corner. And, while I don’t want to think about it too hard, I do know that California deadline for its updated requirements on sexual harassment prevention training go into effect January 1, 2021. This impacts most of the ~18M people working in California. Perhaps this deadline doesn’t warrant as much confetti as New Year’s, but given this is one of the largest, most significant regulations to come out of #MeToo, it’s certainly worth understanding how the government is responding to our collective increased awareness of workplace harassment.


Since 2005, California has mandated that all managers and supervisors at companies larger than fifty people must complete two hours of training on sexual harassment issues every two years. With the advent of #MeToo, California legislators expanded the scope of anti-harassment training requirements to include all employees, not just managers, and to apply to all companies with five people or more. They have also expanded the scope of the training to include not only sexual harassment, but also harassment based on gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation as well as the prevention of abusive conduct. The initial deadline for all this training was initially January 1, 2020 but was extended to January 1, 2021.


Wait, does this affect my startup?


You should always check-in with your HR/People team members or legal team if you have them. For those early startups without, if your company has more than five employees in any location, and at least one employee in California, then this legislation applies to you. (Employees in this case means temporary or seasonal workers, including paid interns, but does not include independent contractors, and may or may not include unpaid interns and volunteers.)


In terms of what must happen, California people managers need to complete two hours of training, and all California employees must receive one hour of training by the end of 2020. After that, employees must receive training (two hours and one hour, respectively) every two years for companies to stay compliant. In addition, new employees must receive training within six months of hire, and new people managers must receive managerial training within six months of becoming a new manager. And, if your company hires people for less than six months (seasonal, temporary, etc.), those employees must be trained within 30 days of their hire or 100 hours worked, whichever comes first. Training can be in-person, online, or a mix of both.


Culture over compliance


Harassment is pervasive. You may have experienced it personally, or know friends and colleagues who have. Undeniably, being treated disrespectfully at work is bad for you, personally and professionally. According to the EEOC, workplace culture sets the conditions in which harassment can flourish or be prevented.


Yes, there are legal and business-related reasons to address harassment — loss of productivity, higher employee turnover, and a negative effect on your bottom line, for starters — but building a culture of respect and inclusivity is the most important reason to take anti-harassment training seriously.

We should all be able to get on board with the idea that your gender, sex, or other characteristics shouldn’t impact whether you feel safe and supported at work.

The bad news: traditional sexual harassment training, which is often an hour long video watched (or ignored) yearly, doesn’t work. There’s actually evidence that it can make sexual harassment worse. Traditional training focuses on compliance — reading, checking the boxes and not getting sued. But, not breaking the law is the bare minimum when it comes to treating employees with respect.


This means that while California’s training regulations are certainly well intentioned, there’s no evidence to suggest that a surge in traditional training will impact workplace harassment, and there’s some evidence to suggest it could increase unconscious gender bias.


The good news: with every problem comes an opportunity to do better. Training can promote real culture change in your organization if it’s used to demonstrate that company leadership genuinely cares about preventing harassment. One study from the military showed that the biggest driver of whether women in uniform are treated equally is whether their immediate leadership made “an honest and reasonable effort to stop harassment,” and that leaders “model respectful behavior to both male and female personnel”. These units were less likely to report having experienced sexual harassment in the preceding twelve months. Culture change starts at the top and affects every person in your organization.


What to do


Chances are, your company is already more than five people, so training will soon be mandated. Use it as an opportunity to show that sexual harassment prevention is something you care about from day one, versus something you care about only when you’re forced to because, say, an employee shares their experience on Medium.


An HR leader is not usually hiring priority number one for new startups. Often, a developer, ops person, or even founder is moonlighting as people ops. To find good training that both meets the standards and will speak to your company culture, look for training that:

  • Is evidence-based and incorporates actionable, proven strategies such as bystander intervention.

  • Aligns with your company values. Values like transparency, respect, and a bias toward action should be reflected in how you address harassment.

  • Is high quality. Remember, your employees are going to look to you to understand how seriously to take this. Signal that this is important by investing in content and a user experience that they’ll actually enjoy. The cynic in me says it’s cheaper than a lawsuit, the bleeding heart just wants everyone to feel worthy and respected.

Company cultures are not built one Tuesday morning every two years. They are made in the everyday decisions and defined by how companies address and grow from challenges. Set a strong foundation for your culture (and, yes, minimize future liability) by keeping up with the regulations, revisiting training and topics at a regular cadence, and using your training as a starting point for conversations. They might be uncomfortable, but that’s okay. That’s where growth happens.


Want to learn more about harassment prevention training? Drop us a line!

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