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Does sexual harassment training work?

In the last five weeks, six lawmakers have been forced to resign or abandon plans to seek re-election after being accused of sexually inappropriate behavior.

As part of its response, Congress approved legislation in November requiring all members to undergo mandatory sexual harassment training, joining a growing list of institutions, including Uber, Fox News, and NBC, that have doubled down on sexual harassment training.

Jonathan Segal, a lawyer who conducts in-person sexual harassment trainings for supervisors, estimates he’s seen a 50 percent surge in training requests since the Harvey Weinstein story broke in October. Since then, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency tasked with enforcing violations of anti-discrimination law, says it’s seen a fourfold increase in hits to its website.

But there’s little evidence that sexual harassment training works.

The EEOC concluded in a 2016 report that trainings have failed as a prevention tool because they are “too focused on simply avoiding legal liability.”

Last year, the EEOC’s task force on workplace harassment found only three studies that have evaluated the effectiveness of training programs over time at companies. And the most recent study on the subject was 15 years old.

“It was a jaw-dropping moment for some of us,” Victoria Lipnic, the agency’s acting chair, said.

An important question now: Will companies respond to the #MeToo movement by pouring more money into trainings or will they focus on developing other solutions?

How sexual harassment training works

A survey released this fall by the Association for Talent Development shows that 71 percent of human resource professionals said their company conducts some form of sexual harassment training.

Emtrain is a company that creates online trainings for Netflix, Pinterest and Yelp. Photo courtesy of Emtrain

Sexual harassment trainings often take the form of online programs that employees complete on their own. In some cases, employees are asked to gauge inappropriate behavior. One exercise by Emtrain, a company that creates online trainings for Netflix, Pinterest and Yelp, directs employees to color code a series of comments — green is for respectful, red for offensive. “That’s a little orange” is a gentle warning for borderline behavior. In others, employees are informed about the consequences of sexual harassment. In one video, for example, a female narrator discusses the toll sexual harassment can take on a company. “Conflict consumes 28 hours per week and $6,000 per employee per year in lost productivity,” she says. Trainings are often followed by a quiz.

Trainings are also done in-person, often in small groups led by a lawyer. Segal says these live sessions are more engaging. “One of the things that we tell clients is: ‘If you are looking for a canned approach, it belongs in the can,’” Segal said. “If it’s not interactive, it’s deadly.”

Then there are the trainings specifically designed for accused harassers. Typically, these are conducted for offenses that are not considered severe enough for immediate termination. The goal with these, says Joanne Hutcheson, who has done so-called “executive remediation” sessions for more than a decade, is rehabilitation. The sessions, Hutcheson says, are typically one-on-one, conducted in a neutral location and often tailored to address the employee’s behavior. Discussions focus on the specific behavior, triggers and tools for preventing it.

“It’s about getting them to tell me how they look at the world,” she said. “Tell me about this behavior, what was your intent. If the intent was nothing like the impact, we go back to intent versus impact.”

How sexual harassment training has evolved

Companies have wrestled for decades with how to deliver such trainings, ever since the EEOC released its first guidelines on sexual harassment in 1980. The guidelines came as the government first declared sexual harassment a form of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

One of the first anti-harassment training videos to emerge after these guidelines was a video called “The Power Pinch.” The movie opens with a male narrator sitting at a bar: “Good ol’ sex,” the man says straight to camera. “What’s wrong with that huh? Everything, as a matter of fact, when it’s unwelcome and when it occurs at work.”

The early trainings in the ’80s were victim-focused and often included advice for someone suffering sexual harassment, said Elizabeth Tippett, an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law who tracked and analyzed the evolution of sexual harassment trainings from 1980 to 2016. Advice included documenting the incident and telling someone about it. “Old sexual harassment trainings had a very activist bent,” she said.

The court first ruled that sexual harassment was an illegal form of discrimination in the 1986 case Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, which involved a bank vice president who raped an employee on “several occasions.” The Vinson ruling gave the EEOC the muscle to enforce these violations and helped “fuel the training trend,” Thomas Jefferson School of Law professor Susan Bisom-Rapp said.

But by the mid-1990s, anti-harassment training was being increasingly used as a form of legal protection for companies, Tippett said. Her analysis shows that around that time, the self-help advice had all but disappeared from the curriculum, and harassment was being largely framed as a productivity drain and bad for business. She suspects that as more people adopted sexual harassment training, the trainers determined that their employers — not the accusers — were their primary clients, and changed the curriculum accordingly.

In 1998, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, a case that centered around a lifeguard who accused supervisors of offensive behavior, set a precedent that an employer can escape liability for sexual harassment claims by taking “actionable steps” to prevent and promptly respond to sexual harassment claims.

It was after this decision that courts began to give employers credit for simply adopting trainings — regardless of their effectiveness, said Lauren Edelman, a law professor at University of California at Berkeley. She calls it “symbolic compliance.” It creates little incentive, she said, for a company to improve or even evaluate its training practices.

‘Turning a battleship’

Sexual harassment and assault is not always about sexual desire, says Anna Kirkland, a women’s studies professor at the University of Michigan. It’s about “the exploitative power-driven use of sexuality.” And it’s made worse by the inequality of women in the workforce.

“What we know helps is when there is not a huge power differential with male managers and the women who work under them,” says Frank Dobbin, a sociology professor at Harvard University. Companies should focus on putting more women in management positions or leadership roles, he added.

Trainings themselves are partly based on the premise that employee education can prevent or at least curb sexual harassment. But Louise Fitzgerald, a psychology professor and sexual harassment researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that ignorance of what constitutes harassment is not the problem.

“Do you really think that educated grown men need to be taught not to grope their co-workers?” she said. “Do congressmen really not know that they aren’t supposed to pull their genitals out or greet a staffer at the door wearing a towel? The fact that people don’t know, well that is nonsense.”

The real solution, Fitzgerald says, is not a quick fix. “We are talking about turning a battleship. That is slow, and it is a lot of work.”

It is also difficult to determine what would convince a current or would-be harasser to not engage in harassing behavior, Tippett says. “There is very little research in sexual harassment training to begin with, so we don’t really know what would be persuasive.” She points to anti-smoking commercials as a potential model. “They have become very effective and compelling, but that has taken years of figuring out what works and what doesn’t.”

But when a training session does manage to connect with employees, the result can be powerful. A trainer featured in a New York Times expose on sexual harassment inside two Chicago Ford Motor Company plants recalled to the newspaper one session where a male worker confessed to harassing his female colleague and also spreading rumors that they’d slept together. He apologized to the woman in front of a teary-eyed class. “It was so emotional,” the unnamed trainer said in an interview with the paper’s podcast “The Daily.”

There is some indication that in light of the #Metoo movement, some companies are improving the training process.

Fox News said in a statement to the NewsHour that the network conducted an anonymous employee survey with 90 percent showing a strong understanding of workplace conduct and standards.

After high-level misconduct scandals at NBC and Fox, both companies have switched from online trainings to required training in person. PBS for the first time this year is also requiring training for all employees. It was previously only required for new employees and managers.

But evaluating these trainings is difficult. “Research is pretty thin and very hard to do,” Kirkland said. “Getting access to a real workplace over a period of time is a significant challenge.”

Men, women and the ‘holiday hug’

Something else Segal has found in his recent training sessions: “Men are scared.”

“I’ve been getting a lot of questions about hugs lately. Questions like: ‘Can I give someone a holiday hug?’”

After the Weinstein scandal broke, Segal says he’s also been fielding calls from employers concerned about men avoiding women in the workplace. One recent call was from a university concerned that a professor would not meet with female students during office hours with the door closed. “The university wanted to know if it was okay, and it’s not okay.”

“It’s an incredibly dangerous message that women are almost black widow spiders waiting to catch their prey and a man should not be alone with a woman unless he has a guardian to protect him,” he added.

In a tweet from November, Brit Hume, a senior political analyst for Fox News, appeared to endorse what’s been called “The Pence Rule,” after Vice President Mike Pence’s practice of not eating alone with women who are not his wife or attend an event without her if alcohol will be served.

“Mike Pence’s policy of avoiding being alone with women other than his wife looking better every day … ” the tweet read.

Hume’s initial tweet was liked by nearly 53,000 users. In a later tweet he wrote: “Men in power who meet alone with women are subject to gossip & in some cases, false allegations of misbehavior. Not meeting alone helps avoid those risks.”(A Fox News spokesperson emphasized that Brit Humes’ opinions are his own.)

To address this particular issue, Segal has expanded his trainings to include a program called Safe Mentoring, which teaches men how to mentor younger women without harassing them.

Restricting men and women from meeting alone is dangerous territory, Tippett says: “Imagine if this was about refusing to have dinner with someone because of their race or national origin. It is no more acceptable if it is a woman.”

Businesses instead should be striving for equal opportunity, she said. That involves providing a workplace that’s free of harassment, but also giving everyone equal access to the ladder.

“Are you making jobs available to everyone?” she said. “Are you imposing a different standard on what it means to be successful? Are you applying different standards to different groups?” These factors are all part of this bigger picture for why women and other underrepresented groups have not advanced to the top of the hierarchy, she said.

For Louise Fitzgerald, the #metoo movement has been stunning to watch.

In 1991, Fitzgerald counseled Anita Hill and her legal team ahead of her infamous testimony during the nomination hearing for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whom Hill accused of sexual harassment. “I thought this moment would come after that hearing. I remember it being described as a national teach-in, but we forgot. The public forgot.”

In 1992, inspired in part by Hill’s testimony, more women ran for public office in the U.S than ever before. Congress gained 28 new female lawmakers that election year. Many commentators saw this as a direct reaction to the Thomas nomination, whose appointment dismayed many women who felt that Anita Hill’s allegations were not taken seriously by a male-dominated Senate.

In 2017, Time magazine made a similarly hopeful declaration when it named “The Silence Breakers,” the women who had come forward with stories of sexual harassment and assault, as its “Person” of the Year.

A national reckoning, however painful and prolonged, does not always correlate with permanence. But Fitzgerald sees a slow change finally starting to take hold.

“I feel like I have been waiting 30 years for this to happen,” she said. “This time it seems to have more of a chance of sticking.”

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