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Sensitivity/Empathy Training: Choosing the Best Solution

Updated: May 16, 2022

By: Evelina Silveira, President, Diversity at Work

woman sitting in front of her laptop

After making racist comments in the workplace, Susan was sent to me due to her passive-aggressive behaviour, intimidation, and acting as an overall big bully. So why hadn’t Susan been fired from her job? The answer was simple: she was highly productive and hard-working. But there is more. Not only was her boss a bully, but so was the business owner, cementing and legitimizing a hostile, toxic workplace. Moreover, as a young worker, Susan had no good role models of respectful and effective communication.

No one had ever challenged Susan’s behaviours. There was no professional standard for workplace conduct, and accountability seemed non-existent. Finally, one day, her comments and actions were taken to task by a newly hired Hispanic Human Resources Manager, who was extremely upset and documented the incident. Thankfully, she was sent to sensitivity/empathy and anti-bullying training with me.

Susan was highly resistant and one of the most challenging participants I had until now. She underwent online, generic sensitivity training before one-on-one training with me. However, she liked it and did not want to go through 7 hours of training. I realized why online sensitivity training could be a preferred alternative for workplace bullies.

Online courses can be valuable for raising awareness, but they fall short regarding skill development and holding bullies accountable for their actions. A bully needs to learn new skills to replace their destructive behavioural patterns. Unfortunately, Susan did not get any of that with an on-demand webinar.

Covering a broad range of problems, the participant may feel none applies to them. For example, Susan felt, “Well, I don’t do any of that, so my behaviour can’t be so bad.” For example, “I’m not a homophobe!

Checking and clicking boxes and advancing slides, the passive participant engages with little emotional impact. As a facilitator, I encourage participants to take responsibility and use “I” statements, which are influential in moving ahead and altering problematic behaviour. There is no way they get a pass.

Workplace bullies need to get out of their “comfort zone” and feel “uneasy” and have someone else control the situation for a change. I confront the participant on every action presented to me by human resources. I work with them to understand the impact and any social/historical contexts of the words or actions they may have used. The process can be pretty emotional for them, but this is also a significant turning point in raising awareness of how their behavior sets them back and hurts others.

A bully should not feel relaxed in an initial training session. However, since no one is challenging them for their behaviours and they can usually take the course anywhere at any time -- I would say that is way too convenient.

Finishing an online sensitivity course makes it seem like your work is complete; however, usually, with customized, one-on-one training, the journey has just begun. As a result, you learn valuable insights about yourself. In addition, you receive resources for coping with anger and communication guides. Training is tailored to each participant -- which is a real bonus. Each person has different needs. As a trainer, I encourage participants to seek out therapy, counseling, and forms of relaxation to address what could be the roots of their bullying behaviours.

In the case of Susan, one-on-one customized sensitivity training was what she needed. First, Susan had to be confronted by a third party and challenged about her behavior. Then, after a lot of resistance and a few tears, Susan realized she had never been taught to communicate politely. Instead, she grew up in a family that just said what came to their mind, no matter how cruel or inappropriate it was.

Although her workplace culture is toxic, Susan received the communication and coping skills she needed to diffuse her anger, communicate more assertively, and understand the impacts of continuing discriminatory behaviour on herself, the organization, and the public. Given that Susan was extremely hard-working, loyal, valued, and not easily replaced, she was worth the investment.

While employers may be looking for the quickest and least expensive way to deal with workplace bullying and harassment, those routes are ineffective. Intimidation keeps people from reporting bullying and harassment (sometimes as long as 30 years); a person who wields that kind of fear in an organization needs a comprehensive approach. If you want to retain them, this is the best route. At the end of our training, all participants expressed appreciation that they finally received the feedback and resources to be more successful at their jobs.

Not every worker is a "Susan". Most employers approach me because they want to retain their workers, other times they may be going through the motions of doing due diligence. Occasionally, the employee is not meeting the performance expectations, and in combination with their aggressive behaviours, termination may be inevitable. In this case, the employer wants something quick to put on file, demonstrating that they received some third-party training. A shorter session of about three hours is more appropriate in this instance than the more comprehensive approach I described above. We can look at the impacts of the actions, identify various bullying behaviours and provide anger management and self-regulation tools and also include a report.

Diversity at Work is currently offering this service globally and virtually. Contact us today to help you end workplace harassment and retain productive employees. To learn more about our signature anti-bullying and sensitivity training, please visit.

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