Lee Judge

Anti-harassment training won’t stop all the problems, but it’s still vital in the workplace

Even in the best environments, rogue predators will sometimes sexually harass. But the Star’s Oct. 31 editorial, “Training won’t prevent sexual harassment,” overlooks the enormous cultural and business advantages a solid anti-harassment training program brings to the workplace.

The misperception stems from a widely-held assumption that the primary aim of anti-harassment training is to educate bumbling men who don’t understand the “goshdarn grey areas” about what’s acceptable these days. That’s a faulty premise. Responsible employers recognize effective training programs show management’s commitment to stamping out unacceptable behavior, empower bystanders and victims to speak out and provide a very real business advantage.

A high-quality training program sends the message that management strives for a workplace free from harassment and discrimination. That doesn’t occur by simply handing out policies or showing a video. The better programs include in-person interaction, with part lecture and part opportunities for attendees to ask questions and flesh out hypotheticals. They contain not only descriptions of inappropriate conduct, but also information about the very real traumatic impact that harassment has on its victims. With management visibly present and supportive, anti-harassment training specifically counsels victims and bystanders how to report bad behavior and why it’s imperative they do so without fear of retaliation or reprisal.

Good training empowers witnesses and victims to stop others’ harassing activities at first recognition. Isolated, inappropriate comments or jokes — or even instances of more serious sexual assault — do not have nearly the traumatic impact of an environment permeated with such conduct, where a victim believes it must be accepted as a regular event. Training reinforces the concept that most employees believe sexual harassment and assault are very wrong, and it empowers bystanders and victims to stop it immediately when they see it. When predators understand they are clearly in the minority and their peers abhor their behavior, it’s more likely to lessen. Even more importantly, when victims understand they will be supported by their peers (and management), they will speak out earlier and more often.

The business case for anti-harassment training is indisputable. Legal and human resources professionals understand the defenses from liability and damages available to employers who properly train, but even beyond that, training makes good business sense. When I talk with business professionals about the options for training programs, one of the questions I get most often is whether implementing a training program will result in more complaints of harassment. My answer is that employers may very well see an initial, short-term uptick in complaints — but that’s not a bad thing. When an employer knows about hostile or even questionable environments, it has the opportunity to act and remedy the situation before it gets worse. That can be managed for the betterment of all employees, oftentimes quickly and economically. The real legal and financial risk to a company comes when harassment or assault goes on for an extended period and is never reported until it becomes an administrative charge or a lawsuit. Nobody wins at that point.

Eradication of all harassment and discrimination is an ideal — a righteous and beautiful one, but just an ideal. Evil predators and oafish buffoons will always exist to some extent and the best the majority of us can do is to support each other and to speak out when we see injustice. That in itself is a big step forward. However, if educating our workforces enlightens even one “bumbling” harasser to stop his or her boorish behavior because of the impact it has on a victim, then that’s a very, very good thing too.

Paul F. Pautler is a partner with the labor and employment group at Husch Blackwell, LLP.