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Is Mandatory Training Effective In Stopping Sexual Harassment?

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As the wave of sexual assault allegations continues to break, one Virginia congresswoman is moving forward with a new training requirement for members of Congress and their staffers. But there is disagreement whether training alone can be effective.

The House Administration Committee is not usually known for moments of high drama. But that’s what happened during a recent meeting when Republican Congresswoman Barbara Comstock recounted a story she heard about an unnamed colleague. The male Congressman asked a female staffer to bring over some materials to his residence.

Credit (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Barbara Comstock at the Capitol, in Washington, Tuesday, March 28, 2017.

“The young staffer, it was a young woman, went there and was greeted with a member in a towel," Comstock recounted. "It was a male who then invited her in. At that point, he decided to expose himself. She left and then she quit her job.”

A few days later, Comstock introduced a resolution requiring all members of Congress and their staffers to complete mandatory sexual harassment training during each session of Congress. The resolution sailed through the House as the wave of allegations continues to add new names every day.

Critics say there’s a problem, however. “We know that mandatory training doesn’t seem to work, or at least there’s no evidence it does," said Susan Bisom-Rapp. "And yet people keep deferring to that as a cure-all for the problem that ails us.” Bisom-Rapp is a law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. For more than 15 years, she’s been a critic of the billion-dollar industry that’s popped up around sexual harassment training.

She says there is no empirical evidence this training changes behavior. In fact, she points to a university that studied its own sexual harassment training. “In fact the training policy did not work, and it made men who went through the training less likely to be able to discern sexual harassment. It had no effect on the women.”

Rather than requiring more training, she says, lawmakers should be focused on collecting data. That way members of the public would know which members of Congress were using tax dollars to settle claims. “A settlement is paid out, you sign if you’re a victim, a nondisclosure agreement, and that prevents collection of data in the aggregate. So you can see if certain people are perpetrating harassment against others.”

Not so fast, say leaders of the training industry like Ingrid Fredeen with NAVEX Global. “People are taking evidence of 'Hey claims are still out there, there are still problems' as evidence that harassment training is not working and I don’t think that’s the right way to look at this.”

Fredeen says training is one element of tackling the larger cultural problem, an important element that should not be overlooked. “It’s really interesting people are trying to draw those conclusions. But they don’t have support for the conclusion. We’re not seeing studies where people are saying the culture is awesome. The training isn’t effective.”

It was mainly to provide a good defense when sexual harassment did take place.

Andrew Rawson is the chief learning officer at Traliant, which also provides training. He says that many of the early sexual harassment training courses were poorly designed. “The main reason was not necessarily to prevent sexual harassment from taking place. It was mainly to provide a good defense when sexual harassment did take place.”

Rawson says a better way to approach the training is small and ongoing messages rather than huge chunks of time every two years.  “A steady drip campaign of positive messages and ones that reinforce that the organization has got your back and has got a zero tolerance policy we think has a much better chance that the traditional let me teach you what the law is because that obviously doesn’t work.”

Rep. Comstock says one potential reason why no evidence exists to show that training works is that the training itself is too generic. She says one way to handle that on Capitol Hill might be to create specialized training for congressional staffers, many of whom are in their first job out of college and might not realize when their bosses are behaving inappropriately.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.