A reckoning over sexual harassment at work may finally be coming. 

Sparked by the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, a host of powerful men in media, comedy and politics have been publicly accused of sexual harassment – not only in the US but also in the UK, Canada, France, China, Nigeria and elsewhere over the last few weeks. 

Harassment training allows companies to check a box and avoid liability

You don’t need to be working for a high-profile business to be affected. So widespread is the problem an estimated half of UK women report being sexually harassed at work, according to one BBC survey. In the US, that figure looks much the same, and within the European Union, one in two women reports experiencing sexual harassment in her lifetime. 

Faced with a challenge of such staggering scale, the question everyone should confront is how to stop it. 

Following complaints from 700 actresses, The Swedish Film Institute has proposed mandatory sexual conduct training for all production company employees. Reports of sexual misconduct in the US House of Representatives prompted Speaker Paul Ryan to announce that all House members will undergo anti-discrimination training. The US Senate will do the same

 

An organisation under fire for failing to protect staff will want to demonstrate that it’s not only treating the problem seriously, but also taking immediate steps to solve it. 

Sexual harassment training is one response, but ultimately, it’s a knee-jerk reaction: there’s little evidence that it works as intended. Indeed, such training may lead some workers to simply sidestep certain colleagues. So, what can be done? 

The trouble with training

In a corporate environment, sexual harassment training is usually a periodic obligation, which employees complete every 12 months, for example. But, in many workplaces, this ‘training’ is minimal – even just watching a video – and many firms don’t conduct any at all. 

Whether a corporation institutes training and what that course contains will depend on the country’s anti-discrimination laws. Unfortunately, according to a 2017 report from the WORLD Policy Analysis Center, 68 countries lack any explicit laws against workplace sexual harassment. 

 

Of the workplace discrimination complaints, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission receives every year, about a third relate to sexual harassment. Although a reported 90% of large US companies use training, the EEOC sees roughly the same number of sexual harassment complaints year-after-year. Frustrated at this persistence, the EEOC set up a task force to investigate.  

People are kind of rolling their eyes… they’re watching the clock and trying to get through it because they’ve got to get back to work – Victoria Lipnic

The most striking finding from its 2016 report, according to acting EEOC chair Victoria Lipnic, was the programmes’ narrow focus on legal definitions and implications. Harassment training allows companies to check a box and avoid liability, Lipnic says, but their message tends to be hollow. 

“People are kind of cynical about it,” Lipnic says, comparing such training to an episode of TV show The Office. “People are kind of rolling their eyes… they’re watching the clock and trying to get through it because they’ve got to get back to work.” 

 

After analysing 74 examples of sexual harassment training from 1980 to 2016, Elizabeth Tippett, associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, also concluded that most training programmes are too narrow in their themes. In her analysis, Tippett compares the incremental content changes in the training to “software updates.” Training still focuses on legal language and obscure, unlikely misconduct scenarios. 

If the company in question only needs a better understanding of the law, then this approach might work, Tippett says. More often though, the problem lies in employee attitudes and behaviours, which stale video presentations won’t address or easily change. 

Spending an hour being drilled on everything you’re not supposed to do might lead “people to believe that interactions with people who are different from you … or interactions with women are fraught with peril,” Tippett says. 

Why is this happening?

Causes of sexual harassment, says Eden King, an associate professor of psychology at Texas’ Rice University include “a belief that women are inferior to men, … the belief that men should have power over women,” and a belief that “men should be aggressors and women should be gatekeepers.”

Expecting a video to reverse centuries-old gender stereotypes is asking a lot – that’s a process that should begin in the earliest days of education, says King.

Both King and Lipnic emphasised that many employers aren’t taking the time to trace their particular problem back to their roots. Instead, they’re implementing a one-size-fits-all quick fix instead of a customised, effective approach. 

The EEOC found that three out of four instances of harassment – sexual or otherwise – go unreported

For example, factory workers, Lipnic noted, aren’t likely to draw many parallels between their work environment and the corporate office portrayed in a training session. Also, the way employees report harassment will vary by workplace. It’s crucial that victims know where exactly to go, that they will be supported, and that their complaint will be investigated confidentially. Most harassment training doesn’t do that, which may help explain the EEOC’s finding that three out of four instances of harassment – sexual or otherwise – go unreported. 

According to King and Lipnic, sexual harassment training is more effective in person. Perspective exercises, like imagining oneself or a loved one on the receiving end of an unwanted touch, for example, encourage empathy, King says. 

It’s crucial, too, that leaders across every stratum of a company attend training with their employees: not only does this underline the fact that people in power are not immune from disciplinary action if they fail to behave respectfully toward colleagues, according to King, it also “conveys the seriousness with which they take the topic and the subject matter.” 

“If the leaders themselves act as allies, if they engage in behaviours that call attention to inappropriate behaviour … that can create a norm that that’s what we do in our organisation,” King says, adding that the presence of senior managers – whom we know to be just as likely to be perpetrators or as capable of offense as anyone else – might also win respect from the more likely culprits, who wouldn’t take much away from a video presentation but might be more inclined to listen to an authority figure.    

With those offenders in mind, among the most important things training can communicate, Lipnic says, is: “This is not trying to change your mind, this is telling you how to keep your job.” 

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