Stopping Harassment or Just Stopping Harassment Claims

I’ve been looking for some good adult anti-bullying/anti-harassment training material.  Unfortunately, I’m looking for cheap stuff (preferably free), as I’m not doing this for a for-profit organization, but for a community group.  So I can’t afford “$50 per employee” or such.  I’m also looking for something a bit more general than just sexual harassment (ideally it would cover harassment on the basis of race or disability, as well as other areas).

Unfortunately almost everything I have is full of problems:

Problem 1: The Focus

The biggest problem has been the focus of the material.  Most is about avoiding claims.  While I realize that talking about how much a successful lawsuit against a company can cost might convince a corporate officer to pay for some training material (“See, you’ll save money!”), that’s not what I’m after.  I couldn’t give a flying you-know-what about checking a box that says “Yes, we’ve trained people.  So you can’t sue us. Ha-ha-ha!  And we don’t actually have to stop abuse!  Ha-ha-ha!”  But that’s exactly what I’ve found.

Maybe I’m unfairly characterizing some of this stuff.  But go do your own Google search for harassment training, and report what you find.  Most is marketed as “when your people harass each other, now you can say, ‘I trained them!  So you can’t sue me.  I tried.”  Sorry, no.  First, that’s not what the law says.  But I’m not a lawyer so I probably shouldn’t go there.  Second, and more importantly, there’s a huge difference between trying to reduce claims and trying to reduce actual harassment.  Reducing harassment has a neat side effect of reducing claims, although not necessarily the other way around.

For instance, see Best Practices for Preventing Workplace Harassment – a site you  might expect to tell you how to create a decent workplace, at least regarding harassment.  Nope!  It has gems like this:

Harassment claims are bad for business. They hurt productivity and morale, can make it harder to retain qualified employees, and can damage your organization’s reputation through negative media coverage. Also, dealing with a harassment claim could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees, and even larger amounts in settlements, judgments, and punitive damage awards.

Seriously?  Let me let you in on a hint: Harassment even without a “claim” is bad for business and hurts productivity and morale!  I’m not saying this site isn’t giving good legal advice (it likely is).  But eliminating liability shouldn’t be anyone’s major reason for teaching people how to stop sexual harassment.

Problem 2: Discouraging People from Seeking Solutions

A few years ago, the employer I was with (not my current one) made us watch a supposedly anti-harassment video for, presumably, liability reasons.  I say “made us” because  it was clear this was simply a requirement of the company based on sound legal advice – not something that actually mattered in our lives or to our managers.  But I’ll put that aside and move onto the content of the video.  After all, it’s possible that the tool itself wasn’t bad, even if the presentation of the tool to employees was.

After watching the video, it became clear that there was a theme.  The theme was “not everything is harassment.”  Well, duh.  Along with valid points (yes, having a romance between coworkers that is mutual, consensual  and doesn’t create a conflict of interest is fine), it kept emphasizing this point.  What point, exactly?  It was essentially saying, “You might be bothered by something, but that doesn’t make it harassment.  There’s a high bar for harassment.”  The subtle message conveyed was that your (likely real) harassment might not be real enough.  After all, one of the biggest doubts victims of abuse have is that they were actually abused.

Following the “you weren’t really harassed” nonsense, it progressed into talk about how your management would have to do a deep, invasive investigation to figure out the truth, because, basically, you might be a liar.  Sure, they told you (quickly and quietly) that there would be no retaliation for reporting harassment – but the message conveyed was quite different.  It was, “it probably wasn’t harassment, you’re just overreacting.  And even if it was, you don’t want to go through this horrible process that doesn’t respect that if you really are a victim that you might feel scared, powerless, and concerned about even reporting it.”

I suspect this is typical of these videos (along with cheesy acting and bad attempts to use “common” vernacular street terms to demonstrate what is and isn’t harassment, but likely using terms that would never be used by anyone outside of an HR department’s classroom.

Problem 3: Too Much Focus on Distinctions

Almost every training curriculum out there spends a lot of time talking about what is harassment (particularly, what is sexual harassment?).  They focus an amazing amount of time on the distinction between quid-pro-quo harassment and hostile environment harassment.  Now, while this might be interesting and useful to lawyers, it doesn’t help anyone.  Both types of harassment are illegal and immoral, and both types should not be seen in any decent organization.  I don’t know that someone who is a victim of harassment cares whether or not he can label it “quid-pro-quo” or “hostile environment.”  He just wants it stopped.

And that’s my concern.  Rather than making us memorize definitions (ah, but there’s a test at the end!  And it’s harder to test for “decent human being” than “was able to remember the difference between definition A and definition B”), it might be better to focus on how to stop harassment.  Most people only need a short lesson on what is inappropriate (basically, “it doesn’t matter if you’re asking for sexual favors as a supervisor or you are just a coworker making crude jokes about someone’s anatomy – it’s wrong either way.”).  What each type of harassment is called isn’t nearly as important as (1) recognizing it is harassment and (2) knowing what to do.

Problem 4: Response to Harassment

I’ve only come across a few sites that don’t immediately say “go talk to your harasser in private” or similar.  They convey an expectation that if you aren’t just trying to get money from the company, you would talk to the harasser first.  After all, she might not know what she’s doing is wrong.  Or so the theory goes.

Certainly, there are times when a private one-on-one discussion makes sense and can solve an issue.  But harassment is often not one of those times.  Much harassment takes advantage of power differences – a man harassing a woman, a non-disabled person harassing a disabled person, a (supposedly) Christian man harassing a Muslim, etc.  These aren’t equal power – these are groups that have legitimate reasons to fear physical and other attack and abuse from the world.  So asking someone to talk to their harasser…well, that can shut down the whole process right there.

Even if the person isn’t scared to do so, what do you say? What do you do?  That’s rarely talked about, and if talked about at all, it’s talked about rarely.

Some programs get that the best time to confront someone is right when they speak the bigotry, hatred, racism, misogyny, etc.  But then they get it wrong what the response of the victim should be.  First, let me say in most cases, the victim should not need to respond.  Someone else should.  Most harassment is witnessed by others.  But, all too often, the rest of a room remains silent.  Sometimes there isn’t others there.  Either way, sometimes the victim can stop further abuse by speaking up.

It’s important to note a few things here.  There are two possible reasons someone said or did something inappropriate.  Either they knew it was wrong or they didn’t! If they didn’t, and they are a decent human being, a simple quick rebuke should extract an apology and behavior change.  Failing that (or where it is obvious it’s intentionally malicious, sexist, racist, etc), the best response I’ve seen is public shaming.  Confronting the harasser in private protects the harasser, but doesn’t help the victim.  The best example I can think of this was when a woman coworker was grabbed by the arm by a man coworker to keep her from leaving his office until he finished his lecture to her.  She responded by shouting, very loudly, “Don’t touch me.  Don’t ever touch me again.”  She was alone in the office with him, but this shout got the attention of half the building – and got her support if he were ever to do it again.  He didn’t.

What doesn’t work, ever, is ignoring it or using humor and jokes.  Yet, that’s exactly what’s recommended by North Carolina’s Health and Human Services Anti-Harassment Training:

… here are some standard responses, said lightly and jokingly that might be useful:

“Uh-Oh! That’s sexual harassment — you had better watch out before you get in big trouble.”

“Is this a test to see how I handle sexual harassment? (This could also be said without humor. See previous suggestion.)

“Are you sexually harassing me again? I’m going to have to call the sexual harassment committee (EEOC, my attorney, the affirmative action officer, etc.) right now.

Uh, no (in fairness to the State of NC, this training looks relatively old and does have some good in it as well – but they really miss the mark here).

No, the right response, if any, is to tell they harasser they are wrong.  And to stop.  Now.

Problem 5: Making it the Victim’s Problem

Most harassment doesn’t happen in isolated spaces with nobody else around.  But, rather than creating an environment where everyone speaks up when they see abuse or harassment, most bystandards are silent when harassment occurs – or may even laugh with inappropriate jokes or remarks.

That doesn’t mean the bystandards are comfortable – they probably aren’t.  But, at the same time, they’ve acted in a way that says to the victim, “Your well-being is less important than me not stirring up anything.  I don’t care about you.

Yes, that’s what you say when you stay silent.

Yet few trainings on harassment, and even fewer policies, make those who observe harassment accountable for giving power to the abuser through silence.  Instead, they focus on “what could the victim have done?”  No, the victim didn’t do anything to deserve to be harassed.  So the question is, “How could the asshole be stopped?” That involves everyone else (all of us!) speaking up and let him have it verbally when we observe harassment.  Sure, it take courage.  And it’s hard.  But it’s a lot easier for us than the victim.

When this doesn’t happen, we should be accountable.  Seriously.  We can give the victim or the harasser power – doing nothing always works in favor of promoting harassment.

In addition, when we observe this crap, we need to report it.  We were witnesses and can strengthen the case.  This person very likely doesn’t just have one victim during one incident.  By keeping silent, we allow him or her to continue.


Does anyone know of any anti-bullying/anti-harassment training that doesn’t have these problems, is cheap or free, and which focuses on a wide spectrum of harassment, not just sexual harassment?  If so, I’d love to know about it.


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