Spotlight for Career Services Professionals
Last winter, the instructor of the professional skills class in the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh (UWO) College of Business approached Shannon Rawski and Sarah DeArmond for help developing a sexual harassment training program for students enrolled in that class.
The class prepares business students for their internships by developing skills such as networking and interviewing. However, there was a lack of coverage of the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace.
“There was a concern that our students might be especially vulnerable as targets of sexual harassment because interns typically lack power in organizations, and because students may be unaware that they are protected from sexual harassment during their internships by employment law and university policy,” explains Rawski, assistant professor, Department of Management and Human Resources in the UWO College of Business.
A secondary concern was that student interns may unintentionally engage in inappropriate or harassing behaviors if they have never been formally educated that those behaviors are not acceptable in the workplace.
“Finally, we recognized that students are more likely to talk with other students about their day-to-day internship experiences,” adds DeArmond, associate professor and co-chair, Department of Management and Human Resources in the UWO College of Business.
“By educating students on the laws, policies, and social psychology of sexual harassment, we hoped to better prepare students to provide social support to each other as a first line of defense against internship harassment.”
The training is based on recommendations from the EEOC, the university's anti-sexual harassment policy, and research on sexual harassment and sexual harassment training. Early on, Rawski and DeArmond also worked with UWO’s director of equity and affirmative action to clarify how the university’s policy against sexual harassment applied to student internships.
“We not only cover the legal definitions of sexual harassment, but we also address psychological definitions of harassment, which we point out may not necessarily substantiate a legal case of harassment, but could still be problematic and harmful in the workplace,” Rawski notes.
Now completed, the hour-long training has been implemented into the requirements for the professional skills class, which is a requirement for all business students before they can apply for their internships.
“Although the training has already been implemented, we have a plan in place to improve it over the course of several semesters,” Rawski says. “We launched the training in the fall of 2017 using a lecture-style format. This spring semester, we will be moving the training online, using a video format. Next fall, we will be adding an interactive component to the online training, involving mini learning assessments and tools to increase engagement throughout the training program.”
After that, she continues, they plan to script and film example scenarios that depict forms of harassment interns might experience.
“As we make these incremental improvements, we will also be evaluating the training every semester to determine what works best and add to the knowledge of best practices for sexual harassment training,” DeArmond says.
Others are interested in the training. The UWO College of Education inquired about adapting the training for student teachers. In addition, a center on campus that employs student “temp” workers has expressed interest in incorporating the training as part of the extensive training their temps go through during the orientation process.
“Before we take the training to other student populations, we want to make sure we have a high-quality program,” Rawski says. “Once we test the effectiveness of the interactive online format next fall, we can take that format and tailor it to other student populations by changing some of the examples to make them more relevant to the target populations.”
The most unique aspect of the training is that it is an extension of Rawski’s dissertation on employee reactions to sexual harassment training. This prior work found that employees often feel threatened by sexual harassment training due to the legal compliance framework often used in training programs.
“The legal compliance frame only offers two potential roles to trainees—the harasser role or the victim role—both of which are negative and threating to the trainees’ positive sense of self,” Rawski explains. “Consequently, training was less effective for employees who experience these threat reactions. Based on this work, we have developed an experiment to test whether the framing of sexual harassment training or the role the training assigns to trainees affects training effectiveness.”
Over the next few semesters, Rawski and DeArmond will be testing to see if how the training is framed affects the students' learning and other training outcomes.
“We have developed four different versions of our training that are all content equivalent, but are framed from different perspectives: the victim perspective, the harasser perspective, the bystander perspective, and a neutral perspective,” DeArmond says. “We are hypothesizing that the bystander perspective will be the most effective condition, but we still need to empirically test this.”
Last semester, they piloted the bystander version of their training with 162 students to determine if any changes needed to be made to the content. After analyzing their results from the fall, the data suggests that the training significantly increased students' knowledge about sexual harassment and related policies. Further, the knowledge gained in the training session improved students' abilities to identify sexual harassment in internship scenarios.
The bystander condition, Rawski says, represents a new way to train.
“Based on our theory,” she notes, “trainees should be more receptive to the bystander condition because the bystander role is positive. Bystanders can intervene to help the target of harassment, and this positive role is likely to be more attractive to fulfill than the harasser role or the victim role. Thus, the bystander version of training should be less threatening to trainees and result in improved training outcomes when compared to the other three conditions.”
Rawski and DeArmond will measure each perspective’s effectiveness by looking at multiple training outcomes including, knowledge, attitudes, and responses to scenarios. They also hope to survey students after they’ve completed their internships, and possibly survey their internship supervisors to collect data on students’ internship experiences and performance.
The final version of the training will depend upon the outcomes of Rawski and DeArmond’s research.
“We are taking an evidence-based approach,” DeArmond explains. “Based on the outcome of our research, we will continue to make improvements to the training program. Once we determine the best framing for the training, we can start another study asking a different question about training and use those results to improve the training even further.”
Adds Rawski: “We see this as a long-term project that will not only make the training better for students at UWO, but also contribute to the identification of best practices for sexual harassment training in general.”
Rawski and DeArmond offer several strategies for colleges to increase their students’ knowledge about sexual harassment and related policies, and improve students’ abilities to identify sexual harassment in internship scenarios:
- Provide students with multiple perspectives on sexual harassment—For instance, your training should cover the legal definitions of sexual harassment, but also educate students on the psychological definition and specific university policies.
- Give several different types of scenarios as examples—Some trainings only give examples of men harassing women, but sexual harassment can also involve women harassing men, men harassing men, or women harassing women. It’s important that students recognize the many different forms sexual harassment can take so they can more easily identify sexual harassment when they observe or experience it.
- Inform students what happens after complaints are filed—Fear of the unknown about what happens next can prevent students from making reports.
- Give students multiple response options—Targets of harassment should be empowered to choose the response that’s right for them. Not every target wants to make a formal report immediately, so informing students that they can engage in other less-formal responses, such as seeking advice from a professional mentor, can help students respond in a way that’s best for them. The same goes for providing students with multiple options if they are a bystander (e.g., intervening in the moment, intervening after the fact, formally reporting) and options for accused harassers (e.g., stopping the offensive behavior, seeking formal mediation from HR).
- Evaluate the training provided to students—Ensure it results in positive training outcomes and is not resulting in unintended negative outcomes.