Many managers and leaders today are ill-prepared to deal with harassment, bias, discrimination, bullying, and other tough workplace challenges, a new study finds.

The study was conducted by pelotonRPM, an HR and compliance training platform provider. The company enlisted managers and leaders from a wide range of companies—large, small, and diversified by industry—to participate in simulations of real workplace scenarios.

In these simulations, managers and leaders interacted with actors who were playing the part of employees dealing with a range of difficult workplace issues, including sexual harassment, racial and gender bias, age discrimination, and workplace bullying. Each simulation consisted of three interactive and immersive conversations that ranged between eight and 20 minutes in duration.

Once the simulations were complete, each video was reviewed and scored based upon a range of standardized evaluation criteria. Simulation participants were also surveyed after their sessions to gather their feedback and perspective.

“It’s estimated that 70 percent of all complaints are made to managers as opposed to HR or legal,” said pelotonRPM CEO Steve Wiesner. “The simulations showed that managers and leaders often lack the knowledge and critical skills they need to handle these situations effectively.”

“They are exposing the company and, potentially, themselves to substantial liability,” Wiesner added. “Ultimately, they are unknowingly contributing to an overall culture that is plagued with systemic misconduct, bias, and ineffective remediation.”

Key findings from the study show that when managers and leaders are approached by an employee with a complaint concerning harassment, bias, discrimination, or bullying:

  • 39 percent did not ask questions to identify potential witnesses to an alleged incident despite the “he-said-she-said” nature of many of these complaints;
  • 41 percent did not ask questions, repeat key facts, and clarify critical details;
  • 56 percent did not explain the anti-retaliation policy or define retaliatory behaviors to the complainant, witnesses, or the alleged perpetrator;
  • 25 percent did not explain to those involved in the matter that the situation will be escalated to HR;
  • 30 percent did not detail specific next steps or explain that an investigation may be required; and
  • 56 percent did not explain that their company has an anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy at all, let alone explain the details of the policy.

“This study uncovers a missing link in current training programs which do not accurately replicate the nuances of real-life situations and do not result in genuine skill-building for learners,” Wiesner said. “After tapping into a large pool of seasoned managers, over 90 percent of our participants felt mistakes they made during live simulations taught them something new and helpful, and 95 percent felt live simulations were far more effective than traditional training programs.

“At the end of the day, we learn by doing, and live simulations don’t just provide a safe environment to practice these difficult conversations, they also reveal where leaders are repeatedly dropping the ball.”