Face-to-face training in the age of #MeToo – a luxury or an opportunity?

Posted by on May 28, 2019

Earlier this year, the International Bar Association and the Women Lawyers Association of NSW made a joint submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces (the Inquiry). The submission made for a sober read. It is a reminder that the legal profession – like many other professions and sectors – still has some way to go in addressing the scourge of sexual harassment and bullying.

The Inquiry – and the #metoo movement more broadly – has certainly raised awareness of the prevalence of this type of misconduct. It has put the spotlight on the transgressions of a number of high-profile people and given a voice to those victims of abuse who had none. But only time will tell whether it will have a real impact on stamping this behaviour out for good. For me, the recent news (or, indeed, reminder) that members of my own profession often fail to appreciate the parameters of appropriate workplace behaviour, was a reminder too of the importance of effective workplace training.

In recent months, Justitia has been fortunate to be engaged to deliver whole-of-workforce training to three quite different organisations: a logistics company; a regulatory authority; and a private school. Staff in all three organisations appeared to welcome the opportunity to discuss the topic of “appropriate workplace behaviours”, which may have been partially because they had had little or no previous training in the area. They were curious and engaged; ready to have the wide-ranging discussion that a session like this can offer.

In our training programs, we aim to give life to the relevant legal definitions by putting them into a  context that resonates with our audience, but also by telling stories derived from actual legal cases. Our experiences as legal practitioners at the coal face of these cases means that we can speak authentically about the personal toll of litigation. We know – and aim to convey – the real value of complying with proper complaint-handling processes and participating in alternative dispute resolution methods such as mediation.

There is satisfaction in dealing with the curly questions that arise in what we sometimes describe as ‘the grey zone’ in workplace interactions: a situation that on its face looks okay, but when more closely analysed, may not be so. For example, when Ben finds out that Nadia is 3 months pregnant and only gives her much smaller tasks than she usually undertakes, in case she doesn’t finish them before she goes on leave, is this discriminatory? Or when Craig and three members of his team always go out for a coffee together at 10:30am, but never invite Frank, is this bullying? And then again when Simon, a manager, asks Bianca, a junior assistant, out on a date (which Bianca politely declines), is this sexual harassment or a breach of the code of conduct?

It is rewarding to observe participants shift in their thinking. They may previously have used themselves as a measuring stick, believing that “What doesn’t offend me, isn’t offensive.” But on hearing the responses of their colleagues, they may regard the scenario quite differently. This is something that online training simply cannot facilitate. The rich discussions that emerge in face-to-face training – how the voice of the victim can be appropriately heard, the place of procedural fairness when handling complaints, the role of the bystander – these are to me where online training seems like a missed opportunity when it comes to workplace training.

Organisations have a legal obligation to ensure they provide a safe workplace. Training staff on appropriate behaviours is one way in which employers manage that obligation. In the last ten years, there has been a gradual shift towards more cost-effective online training formats, but now could be the time to take stock of that approach. It could be argued that e-learning methodologies have not achieved their aim of improving workplace behaviour and reducing complaints. Online training certainly has its place, but face-to-face training gives staff the opportunity to ask questions and hear how attitudes and standards of appropriateness have shifted. In my view, it enhances the learning experience. If organisations agree that prevention is easier than finding a cure, they would do well to take a closer look at the effectiveness of their workplace conduct training programs – the #metoo movement gives them an excellent reason to do just that.

Sarah Rey is a Managing Partner at Justitia. To view Sarah’s profile, click here.