With the deluge of high-profile sexual harassment allegations in Hollywood and the media, leaders are turning toward an ostensibly simple solution: make anti-sexual harassment training mandatory in workplaces.
That sentiment has also reached Capitol Hill, where harassment allegation reports recently emerged. "Going forward, the House will adopt a policy of mandatory anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training for all Members and staff,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said in a statement Tuesday. “Our goal is not only to raise awareness, but also make abundantly clear that harassment in any form has no place in this institution.”
There’s just one problem with this initiative: It’s probably not going to do anything to curb sexual harassment.
The research from sociology and organizational psychology on the billion-dollar anti-harassment training industry suggests these programs aren’t actually effective at stopping or preventing abuse.
“Over 90 percent of large US employers have harassment trainings in place, but it’s having very little effect, if no discernible effect, on the overall number of harassment complaints that are reported,” Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin told Vox. “I don’t think we can sit around and wait for training to solve the problem.”
Experts who study workplace harassment view these trainings as more of a strategic defense against future lawsuits than a solution to a pervasive problem.
As reports of sexual misconduct continue to pop up — at Miramax and Weinstein, at Uber, even at Vox’s parent company, Vox Media — the call for solutions will continue to grow. And the go-to fix might not be a fix at all.
How court cases led to the rise of harassment training programs
When a new employee joins an organization, he or she is often asked to watch a series of videos or sit through a talk on what the law says about harassment, how to protect yourself or your employees from harassment, and how to report incidents. These programs range from movie vignettes to in-person discussions to online quizzes, and they’re often sprinkled with cringeworthy moments like one from this 1993 video. “Customer service is part of your job description,” a male boss tells his female worker, after one of the company’s clients asks her out on a date.
Now a mainstay of the American work culture, these programs didn’t come out of nowhere. In her study of harassment trainings, Elizabeth Tippett, an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, traces the legal history of trainings in part to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s 1980 guidelines, which said employers could be held liable for harassment and suggested companies take steps to prevent the problem, including educating employees about harassment.
Workplace harassment cases also started to pop up in the Supreme Court around the mid-1980s. The 1986 Meritor Saving Bank v. Vinson case, for example, featured a bank VP who sexually harassed a bank manager.
The Vinson decision didn’t mention employee harassment training, as Thomas Jefferson School of Law professor Susan Bisom-Rapp pointed out in her article “Fixing Watches With Sledgehammers: The Questionable Embrace of Employee Sexual Harassment Training by the Legal Profession.” Rather, litigation prevention was already seen as the main goal of harassment training, and the Vinson case helped “fuel the training trend.”
So over time, as trainings were increasingly viewed as a way to prevent lawsuits, courts increasingly saw them as a key part of legal compliance, Tippett said.
Today, the vast majority of large American companies have some kind of harassment training in place, which generally costs $100,000 or more, according to Marketplace. California and Connecticut also require harassment trainings for all employees at organizations with 50 or more supervisors, and Maine has a similar requirement for companies with 15 or more supervisors. The biggest players in the anti-harassment training space include Emtrain, Kantola, and Traliant, and the industry’s annual revenue may reach into the billions.
Anti-harassment programs can help educate employees about harassment, but they don't change behavior
But do these trainings actually stop harassment from occurring?
A wonk-ish must-read for every company or employee interested in this question is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s task force study on harassment in the workplace. Published in 2016, the report painstakingly reviewed the data and research evidence on workplace harassment and came to some very striking conclusions.
Over the past three decades, the authors reported, workplace harassment training and prevention programs have blossomed into a “cottage industry.” And while trainings appear to help participants understand what constitutes workplace harassment, there’s no good evidence that trainings change attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.
“Almost fully one third of the approximately 90,000 charges received by the EEOC in fiscal year 2015 included an allegation of workplace harassment,” the report reads. “Much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool — it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability.”
Consider the EEOC’s data here. You can see that the numbers of harassment complaints at the federal level have stagnated or even increased since 2010. Harvard's Dobbin has analyzed data going back even further, and he says the trend lines look much the same over the longer term.
“[Harassment training] is often a veneer, or what I call symbolic compliance,” said Lauren Edelman, a professor of law and sociology at Berkeley Law. The problem, she continued, is that courts don’t distinguish between legal procedures that are a veneer and those that are actually effective.
Harassment is also vastly underreported. According to the EEOC, some three in four people who experience workplace harassment never tell their employers it occurred. “This [data] is the tip of the iceberg,” Dobbin said.
But the few cases of harassment that are reported are already costing a lot of companies dearly: The EEOC recovered $164.5 million for victims alleging harassment in 2015 alone. It also estimated that turnover costs — employees who simply leave companies after being bothered in the workplace — are an even bigger financial burden than any legal fee.
Truly preventing harassment involves addressing systemic inequalities in your workplace
While the EEOC’s review of training programs is overall pretty damning, it does recommend that employers regularly brief their workers on anti-harassment policies and procedures — again, because they can be effective at educating employees about what harassment is. But the EEOC notes that these trainings need to be part of a “holistic effort” to address harassment.
That seems to be the major point about anti-harassment trainings: In isolation, they are nothing more than a Band-Aid solution. Companies have to reckon with their cultures and address systemic inequalities within their organizations that may be enabling harassment if they truly want to prevent this type of discrimination from occurring.
“There are two things that are really problematic,” said Dobbin. “One is when there are huge power differentials between men and women, and the other problem is when you have huge differentials in the gender composition of a job.”
The EEOC identified workplaces with significant power disparities and workplaces that lacked diversity among the top risk factors for harassment. The Harvey Weinstein example is the perfect case in point. Female actresses are notoriously underpaid relative to men, while male actors can have careers that are more lucrative and run longer.
“A situation like Weinstein is symptomatic of an underlying inequality in the workplace,” Tippett said. “That doesn’t mean training is the best way to address that, but it’s what’s happened.”
Fox News is another case in point. In early 2016, the network decided it had to clean up its image and culture, as stories about the late CEO Roger Ailes’s multimillion-dollar sexual harassment settlements piled up.
The company doubled down on anti-harassment seminars, mandating them for all Fox workers, including freelancers. But Fox has since been embroiled in numerous other harassment scandals involving its stars Eric Bolling and Bill O’Reilly. (The New York Times recently reported Fox paid $32 million last January to settle just a single harassment lawsuit against O’Reilly, the sixth such agreement involving O’Reilly that’s become public.)
Companies that truly want to stop harassment have to work on closing gaps in gender equality, by increasing the number of women in leadership roles, while conveying that harassment won’t be tolerated.
“If women were more represented at higher levels of organizations, including the very top, and represented in significant numbers, that might help,” said Berkeley’s Edelman.
Workplaces that encourage alcohol consumption are also at a higher risk of having their workers embroiled in harassment situations, and reducing the opportunities for drinking might help mitigate the risk. Finally, workplaces need to have systems in place that hold people who engage in harassment accountable so that would-be harassers know the behavior won’t be tolerated.
Making these changes is a lot more difficult than just adding a video module that new employees need to click through when joining an organization. But they could be profound, especially at a time when problems with harassment extend all the way up to the highest levels of government.
The president of the United States has been the subject of numerous sexual harassment allegations, and many of the women who have come forward about harassment recently said they did so after Trump was elected to the White House. For now, though, Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood conversation is reportedly fodder for the corporate anti-harassment trainers at Fox News.