Can Sexual-Harassment Training Backfire?

An article in the British newspaper The Guardian has sparked new debate in HR circles over whether sexual-harassment training can cause more harm than good.

The article recounts research suggesting that training may make some men less sensitive, not more, to appropriate boundaries in the workplace. Among others quoted in the piece is Lauren Edelman, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley :

“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.”

Some of the research pointing in this direction is more than a decade old. One often-cited study from 2001 concluded that men who had training were less likely than those who didn’t to recognize or report sexual harassment.

But some research is more recent, suggesting the problem is not going away. In one 2012 study, a sociologist interviewed workers and sat in on training sessions. Justine E. Tinkler, now at the University of Georgia, concluded that they often resisted the message:

“Gender stereotypes are used to buttress perceptions that sexual-harassment laws threaten norms of interaction and status positions that men and women have an interest in maintaining.”

sexual harassment

Related research has found that sexual-harassment training can mostly inspire fear among workers.

This is a hot topic with many in the HR field. Many who weighed in online acknowledged the problem, but argued it’s less of an issue if the training is of high quality.

Writing in Slate, Nora Caplan-Bricker cites a 2013 study that, she says, “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.”

Studies suggest that training that lasts at least four hours, that is interactive and led by an expert or direct supervisor, rather than an HR specialist, are most effective, Caplan-Bricker writes.

Many employment lawyers seem to agree. One is Richard Cohen, a partner in the New York City office of FisherBroyles. He writes:

“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.”