Does Sexual Harassment Training Make Matters Worse?

Readers responded to my post earlier this week which discussed the controversial new piece in the Guardian which questioned whether sexual harassment training helps prevent such harassment, or makes it worse.

I asked whether sexual harassment training is effective or, as the Guardian piece suggested, backfires and increases harassment — or if the article went too far in its broad conclusion and, in fact, if there is a problem with training, it is in the manner or way the training is conducted – not in training itself.

Feedback, Ball, About, Exchange Of Ideas

Readers were pretty much in agreement that sexual harassment training is effective – but must be conducted professionally and carefully.

Stephanie Davis, a NYC employment lawyer:

I wholeheartedly agree with your takeaway. High quality training, delivered by professional trainers who are deeply familiar with all aspects of sexual and other forms of harassment – legal and otherwise – would not deliver training that would send the message or leave the impression that women are “victims” and that men should blame women. Solid and meaningful training is highly tailored to an organization’s culture and needs, and typically focuses on what is and is not appropriate behavior, the organization’s policy, and understanding how not to be disrespectful and what to do if inappropriate behavior occurs. In essence, effective training fosters a dialogue about interacting productively and builds the foundation for creating a workplace that is respectful – not assigning the role of victim to women or any other group.

Jenny Harrison, a facilitator/trainer and employment lawyer in the UK:

I, too, strongly agree with your take-away and Stephanie Davis’ comments. The key to a successful training intervention is for it not to be prescriptive – giving people a list of “what not to do” or “top 10 inappropriate behaviour to avoid” will result in people being less likely to take responsibility for their behaviour. That’s why in my view online training doesn’t work. Instead, a good face-to-face training session is about (1) getting people to reflect and talk to each other, (2) to recognise and respect the range of different perspectives within a working environment, (3) to encourage greater self-awareness and think more about their impact and who might be negatively impacted by their behaviour, (4) to understand that “the line” between what’s “okay” and “not okay” will be different for each person and indeed will shift within the same day depending on mood, circumstances and context, and (5) empowering people who do feel upset/offended to speak up and encourage more open communication. Finally, good training will highlight the individual and collective accountability for constructive intervention.

Salvador M. Ramirez, EEO and diversity specialist in Chicago:

I conducted numerous EEO/AA training seminars, including sexual harassment and this was never the case. When we began conducting the training this was a concern that many had, that all of a sudden there would be a spike in sexual harassment charges being filed. It never materialized! The sessions were very productive, neutral based, interactive and the feedback we received from everyone was extremely positive. Training sessions should always be conducted in a manner that is neutral, without placing blame or making participants feel victimized, it’s about learning, instructing and getting a buy in. Some subjects are not easy, but that’s where skill and understanding make the facilitator really shine. Great article.

Marc Brenman, a diversity and intercultural consultant in the DC area:

Of course bad training can always produce bad results, such as “make white men cry” diversity training. I’ve never heard much of blaming the victim in sexual harassment case, except for the “provocative dress” cases, “romances gone bad” cases, and disputes over welcomeness. In addition, as seen in recent inflated alleged numbers of sexual assault cases in higher education, the actual incidence of untoward events may be exaggerated. In some quarters, even though legal definitions are clear, some people may be calling a great many things sexual harassment. Anyone who has ever lived through a phony allegation knows this. Finally, as the few true experts in unconscious bias know, sometimes even discussing discrimination can excite neurological responses that were not there before, or were very minor, or were successfully repressed.

Ed Kaplan, HR management consultant in the Chicago area:

As a consultant who has taught the legal and behavioral aspects of Harassment for more than 20 years, terminated employees for harassment, as well as defend companies, I am confident that most men understand harassment and don’t blame the victims. They understand that “repeated, offensive behavior, “touching” and quid pro quo cause charges.

Dana Pearl, EEO/HR consultant in the Chicago area:

I haven’t had this experience as an EEO trainer. It’s important to make the information gender neutral (not to blame men for all harassment), and to provide real-life situations for impact. I agree with the points in the article that training should be in person, interactive and more than an hour or two.

Robin Crosby, HR manager in Mississippi:

I used to complete annual SH training with my Associates but it has recently been replaced with an annual computer based learning module. I do believe my Associates understood and accepted the instructor lead training better. Some would make comments about “women in the work place” but usually when I made it more personal (how would you want your wife, daughter, sister, mother treated) they seemed to grasp the issue clearly.

Anyone else?  Any dissenters?


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Richard Cohen

Richard B. Cohen is a partner in the New York City office of FisherBroyles, LLP, a national law firm. Richard Cohen has litigated and arbitrated complex corporate, commercial and employment disputes for more than 35 years, and is a trusted advisor to business owners and in-house counsel both in the United States and internationally. His clients have included Fortune 100 companies, domestic and foreign commercial and investment banks, Pacific-rim corporations and real estate development companies, as well as start-up businesses throughout the United States. Email Richard at [email protected]