A controversial new piece in the Guardian is questioning a basic assumption of employment lawyers and HR folks: that sexual harassment training helps prevent such harassment.

The article, which is roiling the employment law waters, quotes a number of academics who have analyzed several peer-reviewed studies, and conclude, as one professor did, that “Sexual harassment courses aimed at preventing workplace discrimination can have the opposite effect, making men less capable of perceiving inappropriate behavior and more likely to blame victims. …”

This is quite disturbing, if true.

Lauren Edelman, a Berkeley law and sociology professor, said that “Sexual harassment training may, in fact, make it less likely that males will recognize situations that are harassing. … Sexual harassment training may provoke backlash in males.”

Further, Edelman said that “she suspects the backlash could stem from the ‘cartoonish, somewhat unrealistic’ harassment examples that trainings often include – lessons that can make participants skeptical and resentful.”

Her conclusion:  “All we really know about sexual harassment training is that it protects employers from liability. We don’t know whether it protects employees. We don’t know whether it reduces sexual harassment.”

This article is a must-read.

So is it training per se that is the problem, or the manner in which the training is conducted?

Nora Caplan-Bricker, writing in Slate, takes issue with the Guardian piece.  In “Is Sexual Harassment Training Hopeless?,” she quotes George Mason University psychologist Eden King, who said that “What we’re doing isn’t working well, it’s true, but we have found evidence that there are ways to improve the effectiveness of training programs.”

She first notes that “The basis of the Guardian piece is a depressing study published in The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science in 2001, which found that men who underwent 30 minutes of sexual harassment programming were less likely than a control group to perceive or report sexual harassment, and more likely to blame the victim.”

She says that the theory of the study’s authors is that “trying to get men to recognize the threat that sexual harassment poses to women in the workplace may have raised their hackles so suddenly and immediately that all hope of constructive discourse was lost.”

Caplan-Bricker cites a more recent 2013 study which “suggests that it is possible to teach people how to identify sexual harassment—and to convey how company policies treat it—without inciting a backlash effect.”

This is also a must-read.

So what can be done?

Caplan-Bricker sums up the conclusions based upon the competing studies which find that training is helpful in preventing harassment:

“Trainings that happened in-person and lasted longer than four hours produced a bigger effect; short and virtual trainings had less of an impact.”

“Trainings that asked participants to interact with each other worked better than straight lectures.”

“Participants learned more from trainings led by their supervisor or an external expert, and less when the leader was a colleague without direct authority over their day-to-day work—for example, an HR official.”

My takeaway:  After conducting my fair share of harassment trainings, and studying, critiquing and/or sitting in on numerous others, I come down on the side of those academics who believe that harassment training is helpful and productive when done right.   And what is “right?”   The Caplan-Bricker conclusions, above, are a good starting place.

Any comments on this new controversy?