Sexual harassment training at The Global Fund

In our new series of international case studies we learn from HR initiatives at organisations around the globe

The organisation

Geneva-based organisation The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis (TB) and Malaria mobilises and invests more than US$4 billion a year in programmes that prevent infection and treat people affected by those three diseases. In more than 100 countries where The Global Fund invests, the number of deaths caused by AIDS, TB and malaria each year have reduced by a third, contributing to an estimated 27 million lives saved since it first launched in 2002. Around 65% of its projects are in sub-Saharan Africa, with 19% in Asia and the Pacific. In 2017 alone it distributed 197 million mosquito nets and vaccinated more than five million people against TB. While the programmes it supports are global, all of its 750 staff are based in Geneva, Switzerland.

The challenge

The widespread #MeToo movement has highlighted issues of workplace sexual harassment and bullying across the West. Data from news platform reveals around 1,100 complaints of sexual harassment are filed in Switzerland every year. But a recent survey by online research institute Marketagent (published in online newspaper SonntagsZeitung) found only 11% of victims actually report it. In recent months Basel-based gender researcher Franziska Schutzbach has popularised the hashtag #SchweizerAufschrei, or ‘Swiss outcry’, on social media sites, encouraging Swiss female employees to publicly report examples of everyday sexism.

Many large Swiss firms are now tackling this issue, including UBS, Ikea and The Global Fund. The organisation’s learning and leadership development specialist Thomas Ibbs says: “While we did not face any burning crises ourselves we saw the benefits of taking action. We felt there was an opportunity to encourage our own colleagues to look at the way they worked and interacted together, through a more considered equality-focused lens.”

Further reading

Government to introduce harassment code of practice

Sexual harassment in the technology sector

Harassment claims: The costs of getting it wrong

We're still far from addressing sexual harassment

The strategy

Working with training provider Conflict Management Plus, The Global Fund decided to initiate a classroom-based dignity and respect at work training course. Participation is mandatory for everyone in the organisation.

“At its core this learning is all about equipping people to have appropriate conversations with each other and encouraging staff to speak up if something troubles them,” says Ibbs. “In an organisation as diverse as ours it’s important for us to remember how our behaviour may unintentionally offend others, and give those people who feel disrespected or who observe behaviour that is inconsistent with our values some tools to take action. These skills can also be used to diffuse concerning situations early.”

Each training course has a maximum of 20 attendees – a group size designed to bring out people’s own personal observations and discussions around a set of customised case studies. Rather than being a lecture-based session it is highly interactive and focuses on applying the ‘COIN’ model of feedback (Context and connection, Observation, Impact, and Next time scenario-planning), to have participants discuss issues and try out different approaches to conversations.

“We wanted to make sure the case studies felt relatable and legitimate to participants, so they reflected challenges our teams may face,” says Ibbs. “This includes them tackling sensitivities around religion, differences in opinion on the role of women in the workplace, and how jokes can be interpreted very differently by team members.”

He adds: “Given we have team members from 102 different nationalities working with us, coming from all sorts of professional backgrounds, religious affiliations and just about any other diversity characteristic you can think of, it was important we addressed some of the tensions that can come from such varying backgrounds and perspectives.”

The training also attempts to showcase types of behaviours that others might take offence at that some colleagues might not be aware of. “It’s easier to look at the behaviours of others, but we also wanted to give our team members the chance to reflect on how their own behaviours may unintentionally offend,” he says.

“We also look at how bystanders – those who observe potentially concerning behaviour – might want to interject. We hope it’s empowering and helps our team members feel safe to speak up. The main aim is simply about creating good inter-colleague relations.”

The result

By the end of 2018 some 23 sessions had already been completed, leaving 19 still to go. Ibbs admits that he did have reservations about how the training would be perceived. “I was a little concerned it would be seen as us being overly PC [politically correct], or that it might just be seen as a box-ticking exercise,” he says.

But he’s happy to report a positive reception. “No-one’s closed down and refused to look at themselves,” he says. “I think this is definitely down to being highly interactive, and having the focus on identifying and changing behaviours rather than listening to three hours of policy and procedures.”

Although it’s too early to talk about cultural change, the training has already achieved an 84% satisfaction rate from participants. And when asked if it’s helped them enhance their skills the majority of employees have said yes. “It’s part of a broader piece of work around defining our culture and living our values, so we believe this course is just one way we’ll chip away at removing barriers to creating the climate at work that best enables us to deliver our mission,” says Ibbs.

Now the intention is to have all new joiners take the training, and refresher courses every few years are being explored. “We considered an online refresher,” says Ibbs. “But the face-to-face component of this programme is what makes it effective.”

This piece appeared in the March 2018 issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk