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Why Sexual Harassment Training Won’t Work

Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Brett Ratner, Roger Ailes, and Bill O’Reilly. No, these are not the Oscar winners for 2017. Instead, each of these high-profile men in the media have been accused of sexual harassment by a number of women. Why are so many coming out now and claiming they were sexually assaulted? It’s because of the Cosby Effect. Dozens of women have accused the 79-year-old entertainer of violating them.

Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexually preying on actresses, journalists, and musicians — and then scaring them into silence — has led to a deeply national soul-searching of how and why this can happen, why it goes unreported for so many years, and what can be done to stem the tide of seemingly an increase in sexual harassment cases at a time when people are supposed to be more enlightened and sensitive to sexual harassment. How can it happen given that most organizations have required sexual harassment training?

We’re hearing about the need for sexual harassment training in all workplaces – Hollywood, Congress, and so on. However, in my opinion training is not likely to make a difference. The reason is the type of men who sexually harass women do so out of a sense of power and influence over their careers and/or advancement to a higher or better-paying job. They are not likely to stop unless women come forward and report it and organizations take it seriously.

So, it’s all about the ability and willingness of a man to use his position to garner sexual favors. Does anyone really believe Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein would not have sexually harassed so many women had they gone through sexual harassment training?

What’s the problem with typical training programs? In my view, all they do is explain what is and is not sexual harassment. If men don’t know the signs by now, they’re not likely to care enough to change their behavior.

Second, many organizations conduct sexual harassment training online. Now, those pictures are nice but there is no substitute for in-class training where everyone can watch a man approach a woman, touch her on the shoulder, and say something provocative. This is the best way to illustrate what makes for a hostile work environment.

In my first sexual harassment training program, I started by having a woman volunteer (set up in advance) sit at a desk, doing her work, while a man came up from behind her. He placed his arm on her shoulder.

She was startled. He then tried to sweet talk her. Believe me this made a difference in sensitizing the class to the signs and potential damage of such behavior.

I didn’t stop there. The skit proceeded by having the woman go to HR and reporting the harassment. HR tried to convince her it was not in her best interests to make a federal case out of it because of the authority position of her accuser. After all, did she really want to jeopardize her career for a little touch?

The skit ended with the woman contemplating whether to report the incident to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. I then conducted a review of EEOC requirements and was somewhat shocked to find out so many employees did not know the telling signs and/or what their rights were under EEOC guidelines. You can find them in another blog I wrote about the issue.

Sexual harassment training should not be relied upon to change the behavior of those addicted to such abuse. Most of these folks don’t have a clue about basic ethical standards starting with the Golden Rule: Treat Others the Way You Want to be Treated. I doubt any of the “Oscar” winners mentioned above thought about how they might feel if it was their wife or daughter on the receiving end of the harassment.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 7, 2017. Dr. Mintz is a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Visit his website for more information.

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