document labelled workplace harassment

Reasons Why Sexual Harassment Programs Sometimes Backfire

Does sexual harassment training make sense? Looking at the idea on its face, it all makes sense — teach employees (particularly male employees) to respect boundaries and avoid specific behaviors, and the number of sexual harassment incidents should decrease right?

In practice, experts like Los Angeles workplace harassment attorney Pasternak Law point out, not all sexual harassment training programs are having their desired effect. It’s such a phenomenon that Harvard University professors Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev wrote an entire piece discussing the dilemma. What is it that’s causing these programs to fall short? Read on, as we discuss the latest findings.

What Troubles Harassment Training

According to the findings of Dobbin and Kalev, the most prevalent type of harassment training, which focuses on preventing “forbidden behaviors,” doesn’t work as intended, resulting in a backlash against the groups it’s designed to protect and a decrease in the percentage of women represented in managerial roles.

The reason for this, the professors reason, is the manner in which forbidden-behavior training is presented. It starts, typically, by telling one group that they are a menace and that they need to change what they’ve been doing. Whether that assertion is true or not, research shows that such an approach immediately puts the accused group on the defensive, which then undermines the purpose of the training.

Male participants in sexual harassment programs become more likely to engage in negative behaviors — victim blaming, thinking that women either bring harassment on themselves or fabricate the incidents that they report in part or even wholly. They are less likely to take the training seriously, and this is just for the groups that were unlikely to harass in the first place.

For men who were prone to committing sexual harassment, training actually makes them more accepting of harassing behaviors and more likely to commit them in the future and lead them to be accused of more heinous sex crimes. So, with this in mind, what alternatives exist that can better curtail harassment in the workplace?

Changing Workplace Culture

One idea that may have real-world impact, according to the American Psychological Association, is shifting workplace cultures to lessen incidents of harassing behavior and reduce the tolerance of such behavior in the workplace. 

This starts with what is known as “manager training,” wherein managers receive specific guidance on how to deal with harassment, and works because harassment is something that affects all managers (with the focus not being specifically on themselves).

Combined with bystander-intervention training, to show employees how they can have a direct effect on calling out and curtailing workplace harassment, may help employers make real strides toward correcting these problems in a significant way.