#metoo: The Role of Leaders in Preventing Sexual Harassment

The #metoo movement has given voice to victims of sexual harassment and assault in many contexts, including media, politics, journalism and business. As more and more people speak out on this issue, many feel compelled to do something. How can we as a society reduce sexual violence and create a world safe for everyone?  Many organizations have turned toward training in an effort to address this issue.

The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) ’s journal,Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice,devoted much of its most recent issue to training in light of the #metoo movement and published a review (as well as 21 commentaries) of all the ways I-O psychology research on training can help contribute to reducing sexual harassment[1].

This article highlighted all the ways I-O psychologists can help create better training programs that help combat sexual harassment. One aspect of this article of particular interest is the role leaders play in training effectiveness. This may be less intuitive; leaders rarely conduct training themselves, so it may seem they are “off the hook” in this particular sense.

But the recent SIOP article reminds us that this isn’t true.

In particular, they share about how leaders can have an impact on transfer of training. Transfer refers to how well the knowledge and skills one learns during a training session transfers to the actual job and are used.  One may learn a lot during training, but if it isn’t applied once employees return to work, it didn’t transfer – so the training is considered less effective. Leaders can help ensure that what was learned during trained is applied on the job!

How can leaders do this?  Much of it can be distilled down to modeling and culture change. Followers often look to their leader to determine how they should act and model their behavior.  If followers are trained on sexual harassment reporting norms (for instance) and they see their leader following these procedures him or herself, then they are more likely to follow them as well (thus transferring what they have learned in training to their jobs).

In general, training is the first (but not only) step in combatting sexual harassment; leaders then need to reiterate and support what employees have learned during training in order to help create a culture where employee safety is ensured for everyone.

Just how important is leader support to transfer of training? A recent meta-analysis (which is a study that quantitatively analyzes multiple previous studies at the same time) found that across 32 studies (5,487 participants) that have all examined this question found that leader support is quite important[2].  Consistently across studies, the more the leader supported and encouraged employees using the knowledge and skills they gained during training, the more employees used them on their actual job.

What does this mean in the context of anti-sexual harassment training?

What it means is that organizations should start by training employees on this issue — but should not stop there.  Leaders need to stand in and be role models for how others should behave. Followers look to their leaders to take cues as to how to behave. If leaders support (and not just pay lip service) to the ideas discussed in anti-sexual harassment training, then a new culture can be created.

Everyone can play a part in stopping sexual harassment!

[1]Medeiros, K., & Griffith, J. (2019). #Ustoo: How I-O psychology can extend the conversation on sexual harassment and sexual assault through workplace training.  Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 12, 1 – 19.

[2]Reinhold, S., Gegenfurtner, A., & Lewater, D. (2018). Social support and motivation to transfer as predictors of training transfer: Testing full and partial mediation using meta-analytic structural equation modelling.  International Journal of Training and Development, 22, 1 – 14.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.