What’s the Problem with Training?

Who here provides sexual harassment training for managers and employees?  Who here thinks their training prevents sexual harassment in their workplace?  Who here is confident that their managers know what to do to prevent harassment?  Who here is confident that sexual harassment could never happen in your workplace because you have a policy and you’ve trained?

Let’s be honest.  No one is confident that your workplace is 100% harassment-free simply because you have a policy and have provided training.  (Heck, if that’s how training and policies worked, we’d never have poor performance or discipline issues.)  We know that harassment can happen in spite of our policies and trainings.  We even read articles that suggest harassment training can have a negative effect the workplace.  So, should we stop training?  No.  Absolutely not.

Don’t lose hope in training.  Lose hope in bad training.  Here’s what makes training good:

It’s live. A live training invites conversation.  Conversation invites questions.  We want people to ask us questions.  It is a rare video that actually sparks conversation afterward, so if you are going to video, make sure you check in with folks after they’ve watched it or that the video includes a live (studio) audience.

It’s couched in respect. We know that harassment has a lot to do with power dynamics in the workplace and/or a lack of respect.  The training should reflect that.  I joke that harassment violates a lot of the rules we learned in Kindergarten – keep your hands to yourself, treat each other nicely, say sorry – and to a large extent that’s true.  If we treated everyone with respect, harassment wouldn’t be a problem.  Spend some time talking about respect and what that means for your workplace.  Hint:  This is the civility piece the EEOC wants.

It’s customized to the workplace. Managers and employees need to see themselves in the scenarios posed by the training.  It is important that the training be relatable enough that it makes people feel uncomfortable.  We learn in the uncomfortable.  A manufacturing facility needs a factory line example.  Software companies need software development examples.  A bank needs banking examples.  A retail establishment has an employee-customer example.  I can’t stress enough how important this is.  For hospitality clients, I’m using this video.

We play a game from my favorite podcast where the audience or I can stop the video at any point and talk about what we saw.  This video is so great because it has a gradual increase in severity until the big incident.  It sparks a lot of conversation – great conversation.

The trainer asks questions. What would you do if you saw this?  Would you step in?  Do you have to?  What does the company want you to do?  What if this happened to you?  These are the kinds of bystander questions that the EEOC wants to see in harassment training.  Even if the audience is hesitant to raise their hands, they are answering in their heads and waiting to see what someone else might say.  I’m happy with answering in your head because you’re answering.  If the audience can see themselves in the scenario and are asked what they would do, they’ll remember that feeling when they’re actually in a situation.

Acknowledge the fear. There is a lot of fear about harassment.  Men are afraid to compliment a female co-worker on her dress.  Companies are banning hugging.  A good trainer will tackle this fear head-on, explaining there’s a difference between “you look nice today” and “hey baby, that dress hugs you in all the right ways.”  Spending time talking about the fear and how to handle it can make people feel more comfortable with their own conduct and be more willing to talk to each other.

Folks learn who to talk to. We don’t need the audience to remember the ins and outs of harassment law – we only need them to remember what is problematic and who to talk to.  They need to know that HR is here to listen to them and if they’re uncomfortable with reporting the situation to HR, they can talk to any manager.  So, HR (and a member of upper management) should be there so the trainer can point to them.  “These are the people who will drop everything if you walk into their office with a concern about harassment.”  Employees and managers need to know they are not alone with this, and the organization really, really wants to hear from them.

Training cannot be the only thing an organization does to prevent harassment.  It takes a culture where employees trust managers and feel comfortable talking about these issues without fear of losing their jobs.  That takes much more than training.  But, training is an important piece of this.

I am doing a great deal of harassment training these days in response to #MeToo and #TimesUp.  While I wish these movements did not have to exist, I’m happy organizations are spending the time and resources to do the training.  Consider it for yours.


Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash

Chatbots Chatting

If you use the internet, you’ve used a chatbot.  It’s quite possible you didn’t even know that you were.  Chatbots are cool – using one is like texting a new friend without emojis.  (My favorite is the Resistbot.)  As HR professionals, we see chatbots in recruiting, onboarding, and employee relations.  Chatbots offer quick, easy conversations with candidates and employees to help ease the burdens of busy HR folk.  Yet, as chatbots become increasingly easy to implement and cheaper, we should be careful of the risks.


Picking Up Issues

ChatbotLast year, I attended a vendor demonstration of a chatbot.  The demonstration was “live” so we’d know that the chatbot’s conversation was not canned.  The sales guy (and I intentionally say “sales guy” as he clearly had never worked in HR before) asked his Watson-based chatbot the following question, “How much time is available to take a leave?”  The answer from the bot, “Hannah, you have 72 hours (9 days) of PTO…”  Let that ruminate in your brain for a second.


Two of us in the audience immediately raised our hands.  “That’s not the right answer to that question,” we said in near unison.  Why not?  Because PTO is not leave and leave is not PTO.  The term “leave” brings up things like FMLA, pregnancy, and reasonable accommodations.  While PTO can be used during FMLA or leave when it is an accommodation, PTO is not a substitute for legally required leave.  The right answer would have been, “How do you intend to use leave?”  The use of leave would give an indication of whether FMLA or ADA will come into play.  If Hannah said “I’m pregnant” then the chatbot could say she could have 12 weeks available under the FMLA.  Twelve weeks is significantly more than 9 days.

A human in HR would probably be able to identify an issue whether the chat came from a potential applicant, seasonal employee, or a team member.  HR and recruiting professionals know that certain words when uttered by employees trigger certain laws.  Unfortunately for chatbot vendors, the list isn’t well defined or kept somewhere so that they can feed it into their bot and the bot will then know as much as a human.  Knowing all the words also means knowing employees, their situations and needs.  Until chatbots get really human-like, they will miss issues, including things like requests for reasonable accommodations, reports of harassment, or work injury issues.  (Imagine someone chats about a boss who grabbed a breast.  How will a chatbot respond to that?)

Why is this Important?

If anyone misses a legal issue – like Hannah’s leave issue – the clock starts ticking under the law.  If Hannah’s question about leave availability related to a pregnancy, she could now believe her company will only give her 9 days off for the birth of her child.  While we’d hope Hannah would reach out to an HR human, she might not.  She might think she can only take off two weeks and would be expected to return to work.  This could spark her to leave us, tell her friends how bad we are as employers, or even start a lawsuit once she learned of the FMLA.  This chat and the lack of follow-up could be a violation of the FMLA or state pregnancy leave laws.

The other reason this is particularly important is that there is a record of what the chatbot said.  Most chatbot conversations are recorded.  So, if Hannah meets a plaintiff’s attorney, her attorney will be able to request a record of her conversation with the bot.  Her attorney would be able to tell the date and time of Hannah’s question and (potentially) the lack of follow-through from the company to deal with Hannah’s question and request.  This is great evidence.

If Your Gonna Use a Bot…

While there are risks, good things exist in chatbots too.  “How much PTO do I have?” or “How do I get my paystub?” are great questions chatbots can answer without interrupting an HR pro’s day. This is why chatbots are hugely useful.  So, if you’re going to take advantage of this significant benefit, here’s what I recommend:

  • Have someone read through the chat records. You might find trends that will help develop training or modify your practices or even onboarding to help ease questions.  You’ll also pick up on the leave/FMLA issue described above.  Reading chats takes significantly less time than engaging in the conversations themselves, so please do it.
  • Talk with your vendor about compliance issues. Ask how would the chatbot respond to words like “leave,” “sick,” “boob,” and “hostile.”  These are just some of the big issues, and if the vendor stumbles here, move on to the next one.
  • Test the chatbot on these compliance issues. Pretend you’re going be an employee.  Test how the bot will work.  Your own interaction will help determine the ease of the chatbot and whether you want employees interacting with it.
  • Ask your vendor to do compliance issue updates. We get to hold vendors accountable only if we hold them accountable.  So, seriously, ask for compliance whether it is a new HCM or a chatbot.

We are all going to use more and more chatbots in HR and everywhere else.  We have to be careful as this is another way we talk to employees.  When we are not mindful of our conversations with employees, we fail.


Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash