This article was co-authored with Natasha Nicholson, Senior Content Manager at Kantola.
At their core, harassment prevention training and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training have similar aims: to make the workplace more inclusive and create an atmosphere where everyone is treated with respect and fairness, regardless of their identity.
If your company already provides harassment prevention as a matter of compliance or policy, adding in DEI as a separate but related training can offer additional benefits, including mitigating legal risks, attracting and retaining employees, and improving workplace culture.
We’ll explore both the business and legal reasons for how harassment prevention and DEI training can support each other, and offer some specific recommendations for how you can seamlessly accomplish this for your organization—creating efficiencies and better outcomes at the same time.
A critical way of mitigating legal risks
As noted in the EEOC’s 2016 Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, having a largely homogeneous workforce is an important risk factor related to legal issues arising from discrimination and harassment. Since that landmark report was published five years ago, DEI has become a touchstone issue for employees in the United States. Particularly following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Aubery, and other Black Americans, an increased social focus on racial equity has spilled into the workplace, forcing employers throughout the economy to consider their DEI commitments. And as this momentum continues to build, organizations can take this opportunity to increase efforts to help prevent discrimination and harassment in the workplace.
Here are just some of the reasons why a non-diverse, homogeneous workforce increases the risk of discrimination and harassment in the workplace:
Employees in the majority can be uncomfortable with and even exclude employees they perceive as being different from themselves, leaving employees in the minority to become isolated within these environments.
Even when their behavior toward minority employees is benign, employees in the majority may not appreciate how minority employees can experience the same workplace differently.
This may prevent minority employees from being able to do their jobs effectively.
Organizational processes and rules might serve the majority well, while failing to support the success of minority employees.
Default assumptions about what employees need to do their jobs might fall short of supporting the needs of minority groups.
DEI and harassment prevention go hand-in-hand, with the former supporting the latter.
The case for taking a complementary approach to harassment prevention and DEI training
Moreover, there are specific legal and business reasons why harassment prevention and DEI training can complement each other, leading to better organizational outcomes. In an article on the Diversity Best Practices website, Karen J. Watai, President of Welcome Change LLC and author of Lead Your Way—Practical Coaching Advice for Creating the Career You Want, puts it this way,
Preventing harassment and fostering a more diverse and inclusive environment go hand-in-hand. If you have a workplace where people feel respected and have the psychological safety to speak up, chances are higher that problematic behaviors can be addressed before they escalate to the point where someone feels their only option is to litigate. Effectively combining these topics in one training program has the added benefit of increasing the sense of relevance and usefulness to participants.
Let’s explore some research that backs up this premise and look at the key reasons to pursue this approach.
The tenets of DEI and harassment prevention are connected
Harassment prevention and DEI are both about respect, fairness and civility. Since they address changes in behavior and thinking toward the same end, holding having the two in a way that both makes for a powerful combination. In both cases you are striving to create an environment in which employees feel safe, comfortable and engaged.
New policies and trainings on harassment and diversity have positive effects
According to a 2019 survey conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago, “a majority of employees in workplaces that have instituted new harassment and diversity procedures in recent years say they have had positive outcomes.” Such positive outcomes can include increased employee engagement, collaboration and satisfaction.
A connection between the prevalence of harassment and a lack of diversity
According to a report from the EEOC, “Harassment is more likely to occur where there is a lack of diversity in the workplace.” And, marginalized people who are considered “different” in that they depart from standard norms, are more likely to be targets of workplace harassment. This links DEI and harassment prevention together as a means of advancing progress with both efforts, while at the same time offering complementary legal protections.
Focus on inclusion supports both harassment and diversity
DEI adds an inclusion component to harassment prevention training. Inclusion fosters a sense of openness and trust, which fits with this recommendation from the EEOC: “Employers should strive to create an environment in which employees feel free to raise concerns and are confident that those concerns will be addressed.” By combining harassment prevention and DEI training an organization is tackling two intertwined issues at once—reducing harassment and creating a more inclusive workplace.
Harassment prevention and DEI training combined is easier and less costly
Since harassment prevention is already in play for most organizations, and is mandated in some states, that learning platform may already be established. Adding a diversity component is easier than creating a whole new program which requires more resources and time. This combination also offers the chance to reinforce learning points for both harassment prevention and DEI, making the resulting behavioral changes more effective and enduring.
Four steps to guide you through change
Here are steps for effectively combining DEI and harassment prevention efforts.
Create awareness around advantages — The first part of any change is to create awareness. Start by laying the groundwork for leadership, colleagues and staff about the advantages of combining harassment prevention and DEI training. Use research like the points provided in this article to help you make that case. Gather the information you need to develop aspirational goals for the future.
Connect legal and cross-functional leadership in your planning — One of the barriers to moving ahead with combining these trainings is that implementation for workplace harassment prevention and DEI training may be happening in different parts of the company. Address this structural challenge by bringing leaders together to understand the reasoning behind the integration and set plans to act jointly on moving forward. Be sure to include legal counsel for input, support and back-up.
Provide harassment prevention and DEI training in a way that supports both — Identify training that will fit both harassment prevention and DEI objectives. Because each area is distinct, the trainings themselves should be separate. However, you can do them consecutively, and learning points from one will reinforce the other. Most importantly, select training that offers relatable, interactive and nuanced education at its core. You will also want to create consistency in the training experience in a way that will enable participants to learn in a judgment-free space, absorb concepts at their own pace, and allow for valuable moments of self-reflection.
Feedback and Assessment — Qualitative methods like focus groups and regular manager/employee discussions are especially beneficial ways to get feedback from participants. It can also help determine whether the training has been successful and met objectives for both harassment prevention and DEI—and the level of progress you have made toward aspirational goals that were set early in the process.
The combination of DEI and harassment prevention, when held in a complementary way, provides an opportunity to improve business performance while addressing the legal risks around harassment and discrimination. By making this change and applying these concrete steps, organizations are able to take advantage of the synergies between these two types of training, ultimately reducing legal risks and making inroads towards enhancing culture and performance.