Sexual harassment training

The goal of sexual harassment training is noble enough: eliminate sexual misconduct, sexual violence, and unwanted sexual advances in the workplace. But can it be done?

It seems like one inherent problem with sexual harassment training is, people have all kinds of sexual proclivities. For instance, what if a male employee is especially turned on by women in business suits? And of course many women think men look best in a suit. We are sexual creatures after all, and suggestive messages are often presenting themselves regardless of context and sometimes even despite a person’s efforts to ignore them.

Another problem is, some employees might consider the workplace an acceptable venue in which to meet a potential romantic partner or even spouse. That mindset might fundamentally change that employee’s approach to interacting with other employees, at least to the extent that he or she will always be on the lookout for clues that a coworker is interested in such a relationship.

But suppose all that is bunk: no matter what is going on in an employee’s head, a firm barrier should exist between that and the employee’s outward conduct. This presents another problem, because it suggests that nothing can be thought of as inviting sexual attention.

Yet, that is not true. If a woman comes into work wearing a tight shirt with an incredibly low neckline, is she really completely blameless when men distractedly glance at her cleavage during a meeting? Professionals should (and often, I think, can) control their impulses, but it’s easy to get to a point where this expectation is pushed unreasonably far.

And maybe expectations is really what this is all about. Is sexual harassment training about setting expectations, or is it more about setting boundaries around behavior? If it’s the latter, then I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the training isn’t very effective. If it’s the former, then it’s good but misplaced: expectations need to be part of the work culture, even the hiring process. It’s much easier to get people to conduct themselves in a certain way when they’re all playing the same game and all know the rules of that game.

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