Could Sexual Harassment Training Have Saved Bob Filner?

San Diego Mayor Bob Filner is facing escalating sexual harassment accusations from 13 of his own female employees – each, I’m sure, with their own tales to tell. And while these types of accusations occur in all types professions and to different degrees, he is among the first to claim that – because he did not receive formal sexual harassment training from the city – the city should be responsible for his legal costs and should be liable for ‘failing to prevent harassment.’ This is all according to a letter from Filner’s attorney).

Nice deflection.  And turns out their claims may not even be true, but they bring up some very interesting issues …

When leaders and executives do not engage in the same training programs as their employees, they leave their organizations in significant legal jeopardy.  And they also fail to embody core values at the very top of an organization, leading to dangerous gaps in culture and accountability.

When leaders of companies, governments and other organizations are accused of sexual harassment, many questions often get overlooked:

  • Who is responsible for ensuring all employees, including executives and leaders, participate in compliance and ethics programs?
  • What’s the protocol when leaders of companies have the power to not participate in the same training programs as their employees?
  • How does an organization avoid executive subterfuge – i.e. when a high ranking employee has their assistant complete a training program for them, or demands IT mark something “complete?”  (Yes, sadly, this does not happen infrequently.)

The buck stops here for leaders. In the wake of a scandal,company leaders are the first to be blamed, regardless of their involvement. Even worse, if they are the ones accused, they often face the most reputational loss and the highest level of scrutiny. When a leader gets in trouble, they fail their employees, stakeholders and the public, causing irreparable harm to their company’s character.

Company leaders should take responsibility. Directors, executives, board members, presidents in all industries often find that compliance training takes too much time or is too inconvenient.  There are always a hundred other priorities that can be justified ahead of a training effort.  The answer is to make training non-negotiable.  Period.  There should be serious consequences for failing to take training, including potential compensation-related ramifications.

Then, ethics and compliance programming should be targeted to a leader’s specific needs, both in terms of content and delivery.  At NAVEX Global, we have found offering shorter online training “bursts,” designed specifically for an executive audience and available 24/7 online (including mobile access), drastically improves participation and engagement.

Not enough hours in the day and the “live training trap.” Compliance officers, in house counsels, human resource managers and workplace ethics committees are not only challenged with day-to-day risk assessment and prevention programs, but also are acutely aware that their harassment training programs may not target their employees’ needs equally, which opens the organization up to significant risk. When the average company has only four to six hours each year to train employees on workplace policies, organizations struggle to ensure complete employee engagement and understanding of their workplace’s code of conduct.

With company leaders, there is often even less time to dedicate to meaningful training programs – but for some reason, there is an assumption that executive-level training must always be highly custom and always done in person.  This results in a no-win loop, because live training is extremely expensive and requires a much more significant time investment than online training.  I have seen many organizations struggle with this assumption, and then conclude by doing nothing. 

A highly implementable best practice is to have leaders take the same online training as all employees, and then supplement with an overlay of online executive-level learning.  (And yes, with advances in technology, instructional design and multimedia capabilities, you can deploy excellent and engaging online training that makes a real impact, and that actually forces engagement in a way that live training cannot.)

The reality is that no workplace is totally immune to harassment claims, but organizations must be vigilant about three key things:

  • CoverageEveryone takes effective harassment training – from the Board to the most junior, entry-level employees.  And don’t forget about your contingent workforce – part-timers, contractors etc. 
  • Cadence – Training is not a one-time event.  Best practice is to train every year and, at minimum, every 24 months.
  • Consistency – Training must embody consistent messaging and content, to ensure the same core values and rules are clear to the entire workforce.  This can then be supplemented with additional content and messaging for specialized groups – like executives.

In addition, to the behavioral and cultural return on investment, training – done properly – can provide an organization with powerful legal defenses in the event of a lawsuit.  It will be interesting to see how Filner’s attempts to use lack of sexual harassment training as a personal defensive shield will pan out.  I can’t imagine it will garner much public sympathy.


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