A semi-recent article in the New York Post“The Corporate ‘Cure’ for Sexual Harassment Only Feeds the Disease” — cited a couple of studies that allegedly proved that sexual harassment training is worse than doing nothing because it makes men resentful and more likely to tolerate harassment.

Wow. That’s terrible!

Except that it’s not precisely true. What these studies really say is that bad sexual harassment training may be worse than none.

Stanford study

The article was based in part on a study conducted by Stanford University researchers, which asked freshman males in an experiment to read aloud and sign off on a “no-harassment” policy before they proceeded with the experiment. The control group did not have to read and sign the policy. Men who signed off on the policy tended to be more critical of their female partners in the experiment, and viewed women as being of lower status, than the men who didn’t have to sign the policy.

That’s right – the Stanford study involved no sexual harassment training at all – just reading, reciting, and signing the policy. The authors concluded in part, “This study provides preliminary evidence that employers’ inclusion of sexual harassment policy as a ‘one-shot learning’ experience out of mere bureaucratic necessity actually has effects that run counter to the policy’s equalizing aims.”

I wouldn’t call that an indictment of sexual harassment training. I’d call it an indictment of shoddy sexual harassment training — “one-shot learning” conducted as a result of “mere bureaucratic necessity.”

The University of Nebraska study

The other study (I can only link to the abstract, but I read the full study, which you have to purchase) was based on a harassment training program for employees. The program was created under “suboptimal” conditions by faculty and administrators whose hearts were in the right place but didn’t have the expertise to develop an effective program.

The program consisted of a 30-minute session, starting with a three-minute talking-head video by the chancellor, who said that harassment was not tolerated, that employees had to report harassment and that perpetrators would be disciplined. This was followed by a handout and an oral presentation (presumably, a lecture) by a male-female duo of presenters, followed by five whole minutes for questions from the audience.

After the program, the study showed that men who participated were less likely than male non-participants to view sexual coercion as harassment, less likely to want to report sexual harassment, and more likely to “blame the victim.” (Women who participated in the training did not have these negative reactions.) The authors hypothesized that male participants might have been turned off because the training was poor, and because any concerns they may have had about being falsely accused were not addressed. The authors concluded in part, “There are inherent dangers in cutting corners when developing sexual harassment programs.”

Amen.

SO WHAT DO THESE STUDIES REALLY TELL US?

The majority of sexual harassment is still male-on-female, so if you really want to stop sexual harassment in your workplace, you have to reach your male audience. If men are turned off, then your training may be worse than no training at all. Here are a few suggestions that will help make your harassment training palatable and productive for men as well as women:

  • Your training needs to give people a chance to talk. In my experience, “interactive” is a great thing in harassment training. There are always some men who express concerns about overreactions to innocent comments, vindictive accusers, and whether the accused man even has a chance at getting a fair investigation. These concerns are legitimate and need to be aired. They also deserve a serious response from the company. Employees — and, perhaps, especially male employees — need to be assured that the company will conduct a thorough and fair investigation and that, many times, the investigation will be inconclusive, or will result in a finding that the “perpetrator” is innocent. In either event, no action will be taken against the accused. And in cases where the perpetrator is “guilty,” the punishment will fit the crime. What that means is that a man (or woman) probably isn’t going to be fired for telling an isolated off-color joke. On the other hand, if an employee stalks or sexually assaults a co-worker, he or she almost definitely will be fired. I’ve yet to encounter a man who had a problem with any of that.
  • Your training should acknowledge that sometimes people make false accusations of sexual harassment. If every accuser were correct, then HR wouldn’t need to bother with an investigation. The purpose of an investigation is to uncover the facts, not to make an excuse to terminate the accused.
  • Your training should acknowledge that men as well as women can be victims of sexual harassment. Male-on-male and female-on-female (same-sex) sexual harassment is increasing, while male-on-female is actually declining, according to EEOC charge-filing statistics. Female-on-male harassment is still relatively unusual, but it does occur from time to time, so mention it.
  • Your training should warn women about behavior that they may think is innocent but that violates company policy. Chatting about sex, bringing your copy of Fifty Shades of Grey to the office, sharing details of your visit to the gynecologist, sending inappropriate emails, talking trash about guys. Sometimes women aren’t even conscious that this type of behavior is a problem because women are so unaccustomed to being accused of sexual harassment. But it is inappropriate, and when you point this out in training, it can help the training to feel a little less like a man-bashing session.
  • Your training should help employees identify situations that often result in accusations of harassment. Most notably, this would include having extramarital affairs with co-workers and especially subordinates, which in my experience is the No. 1 Behavior Most Likely to Result in a False Accusation of Sexual Harassment Against a Man. It can also include dating relationships and friendships gone sour, employees trying to protect themselves when they sense that they’re about to be disciplined, and drinking too much at the office holiday party.
  • Allot enough resources to do all of the above. If you’re going to be interactive — genuinely interactive — you’ll have to have a live presentation or at least an interactive computer training program that addresses these points. A video (even with cute scenarios) probably won’t cut it. You’re also going to have to allot more than half an hour. For management, I’d recommend about 2 1/2 hours because you’ll also need to cover how to handle complaints of harassment and avoid retaliation. For non-management employees, you may be able to get away with 45 minutes to an hour, but a half hour is not enough.