“Shouldn’t this stuff be obvious to people?”

At a recent kickoff meeting for a company-wide sexual harassment training, a CEO expressed frustration that he had to explain—and keep explaining—the basics of sexual harassment to his employees. Though I didn’t mean to, I laughed, and then noted that he probably had more experience understanding behavior, boundaries, and relationships than the average employee.

When organizations fail to recognize that people have various levels of experience with sexual harassment, they approach training through a one-size-fits-all lens.

Imagine entering a roomful of people to teach them how to speak and write in a new language, like French. Your teaching approach would vary considerably based on the range of experience within the group.

A quick survey would reveal who grew up in a French-speaking family, who took French in high school or college, and who has never heard a word of French in their life. Armed with that information, you could set a realistic timeline and create a plan to get most of the group ready to speak and write.

Assessing experience and setting reasonable expectations are crucial for sexual harassment prevention, too. While it might be reasonable to expect employees to memorize a company’s sexual harassment policy in two hours, it’s not reasonable to expect them to acquire life skills such as building healthy relationships, boundary-setting, or providing support to those impacted by sexual violence within that same time frame.

Start with a survey

At this particular company, we looked at experience before diving into training. To start, we surveyed employees on the kinds of conversations they’ve had about sexual harassment or violence, both in and out of the workplace. The survey revealed several important findings:

  • 77% of employees felt experienced in defining sexual harassment and its impact, but less than half had actually handled a personal disclosure or report of sexual harassment.
  • 44% didn’t feel comfortable addressing other people’s troubling words or behavior.
  • 55% had received fewer than five hours of lifetime training on sexual harassment prevention and response.
  • 16% reported fewer than five hours of lifetime conversation on the topic of sexual harassment and violence.

When we shared these results with the CEO, he was disappointed, and rightly so, that the skills and experience to prevent and respond to sexual harassment are not yet commonplace. But he was now able to approach his leadership role in the training with less frustration—and a better understanding of what he needed to do to create a culture that was safe and respectful for all genders.

Ask questions, then set reasonable expectations

Sharing the results with the team in advance of the training also helped set reasonable expectations for why and how we covered topics like responding to a disclosure and bystander intervention. People with a lot of experience felt more comfortable holding back, and people with less experience knew they probably weren’t alone in asking questions or trying out new approaches for the first time.

As you consider your own experience and the experience of people on your team, explore these questions:

How frequently do I talk about sexual harassment, sexual violence, consent, or healthy workplace relationships with my family and friends? How confident am I participating or leading a conversation on this topic?

Have I known or supported people who survived sexual abuse or assault outside of the workplace? Is this a common experience within my social groups? Have I supported survivors of all genders, not just women?

How much formal training have I received on sexual assault, sexual harassment, prevention techniques, consent, or healthy relationships? Have these trainings helped me develop workplace skills?

Some of your colleagues may view conversations about sexual harassment and violence as private and taboo. Others may be eager to bring them into the workplace. Some of your colleagues may hide their inexperience rather than ask for help.

Others may feel frustrated sitting through workshops that cover the basics. Some people need to hear stories and experiences about sexual harassment to truly understand its impact, while others may find those stories upsetting based on their lived experience.

The truth is that in every room, every team, and every organization, there’s a broad range of conversation experience at play. When we stop judging ourselves and others and simply embrace this range, we can all learn and change through conversation.