News & Politics

Will Sexual Harassment Training in the House and Senate Even Work?

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On November 9, the Senate passed new rules requiring sexual harassment training for all staffers, interns, and for the senators themselves. The House followed suit on November 14. The rule changes followed a letter sent to House and Senate leadership by staffers who cited widespread sexual harassment throughout the Capitol. The letter was signed by more than 1,500 former congressional aides.

The letter states, in part:

As former staff of the U.S. Congress, we urge you to take action to require mandatory in-pereson sexual harassment training for all Members of Congress and Congressional staff, and reform the system for filing sexual harassment complaints in the Office of Compliance (OOC).

A CQ/Roll Call survey of Congressional staff in July 2016 reported that 40% of women responding believed that “sexual harassment is a problem on Capitol Hill.” In the same survey, one in six women responding reported that she had been the victim of sexual harassment. The CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting Congressional offices and staffs, has stated that “we have no doubt that sexual harassment is underreported in Congress, just as all workplace infractions are underreported in Congress.

The full letter can be read at this link.

The new rules come at a time when sexual assault and sexual harassment controversies are consuming the American news cycle. Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Al Franken, John Conyers, Kevin Spacey, John Lasseter — the offenses have spanned all walks of life and have caused many Americans to reexamine how we handle the issue.

In such an environment, it seems important to ensure that the response to these acts is measured, appropriate, and effective. Reasonable minds can agree that we should create an environment where due process and the rule of law still hold while making it safe for victims to come forward and not be intimidated into silence. That’s the remarkable thing about what’s currently happening — so many victims are coming forward due to the courage of others making their stories known.

The problem is that sexual harassment training has a checkered record of success. Indeed, at times in the corporate world, mandatory training and a clear policy manual accomplish the opposite of the intended effect. They can serve to shield organizations from liability and suppress reporting by victims.

That’s the argument made in an op-ed in the Washington Post. Professor Lauren B. Edelman, author of Working Law: Courts, Corporations and Symbolic Civil Rights, writes that there is little evidence that sexual harassment training reduces incidences of sexual harassment. She says, “Rather, training programs, along with anti-harassment policies and reporting procedures, do more to shield employers from liability than to protect employees from harassment. And the clearest message they send is to the courts: Nothing to see here, folks.”

She cites two studies that indicate sexual harassment training may actually backfire. The first appeared in the journal Law & Social Inquiry in 2012. The abstract of the study says:

Most people in the United States believe that sexual harassment should be illegal and that enforcement is necessary. In spite of such widespread support for antiharassment regulations, sexual harassment policy training provokes backlash and has been shown to activate traditional gender stereotypes. Using in-depth interviews and participant observations of sexual harassment policy training sessions, this study uncovers the micro-level mechanisms that underlie ambivalence about the enforcement of sexual harassment law.

The second study cited by Edelman comes from 2001, in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. Through surveys of employees of a college, they showed that sexual harassment training actually led to the opposite of the intended effects:

This study evaluated a sexual harassment program for staff and faculty employees at a metropolitan university. One hundred men and 97 women who participated in the program and 141 men and 178 women who did not participate responded to a self-report questionnaire through campus mail. Analysis of variance was used to test for effects of program participation and employee gender on five outcome variables. Results indicated that participants showed more knowledge about sexual harassment than did nonparticipants and had a stronger attitude that sexual behavior at work is inappropriate. Men had more favorable attitudes toward sexual behavior at work than did women. Moreover, program participation and employee gender interacted, indicating an adverse reaction to the program among male participants. Male participants were less likely than other groups to perceive coercive sexual harassment, less willing to report sexual harassment, and more likely to blame the victim.

Edelman notes that mandatory diversity training, similar to mandatory sexual harassment training, leads to fewer people of color in management positions. Voluntary training, on the other hand, did not lead to such negative results. She further says that the State of California has mandated sexual harassment training for all employers with over 50 employees, but that didn’t prevent several high-profile sexual harassment cases.

The problem stems from the fact that sexual harassment and the laws surrounding it are vague, reporting procedures are often obscure, and HR departments are stuck between helping the victims and facing potential defamation suits from perpetrators. After all, if no actual crime was committed, how can someone legally be fired?

This all seems to indicate a culture among employers where liability and compliance carry more weight than concern for the victims of sexual harassment. As Edelman points out from her study of workplaces across the country,

[C]ourts tend to dismiss suits against employers who show that they have a policy banning harassment and a complaint procedure in place. Judges frequently discount evidence employees present showing that, despite having such policies, employers condone or fail to correct a culture in which harassment and degradation of women are common. And even where employees have good reasons for avoiding complaint procedures, such as fear of retaliation, courts generally see an employee’s failure to complain as a bar to winning a sexual harassment case.

So long as the culture of compliance and minimizing liability exists, a culture of coverup will remain (see, for example, my series on Baylor University). No amount of mandatory training will reduce the number of victims, but it will satisfy the immediate urge that SOMETHING MUST BE DONE.