This article was originally published in MEL magazine. It is reposted here with permission.
by Eddie Kim
Janet Conley encountered her first sexual harassment training assignment in 1997, as a researcher for Kantola Training Services. The company had acquired a smaller firm that had its own video series on harassment in the workplace, and it was Conley’s task to review it for redistribution by Kantola. The company’s legal expert, however, had revealed a major problem in a subtle moment of a video on “quid-pro-quo” harassment, in which a superior pressures an employee about sexual favors in return for professional advancement: The conclusion showed the superior being reprimanded and receiving a suspension for his abuse. “Our legal expert was blunt: This person needed to be fired for it to be current with the times,” Conley says. “So we brought back the original actors and re-recorded the vignette from scratch.”
Over the last 22 years, Conley has met with those who understand sexual harassment and abuse best — researchers, advocates, investigators and victims — and used real-life cases in narratives and scenes that have taught hundreds of thousands of employees about harassment in the workplace. But even the seasoned production manager was taken aback by the force, fury and volume of the #MeToo revelations, especially when she read the details of the sordid sprees of powerful men like Harvey Weinstein. “I was deeply disappointed. Shocked, really,” she says. “The extent that people hurt women. You know, sometimes when I’m writing a script, I tell myself I can’t include a detail or scenario because it sounds too unreal. But now we know all these real-life stories that would be deemed too offensive by an HR manager if I put it in a video.” Kantola itself has spent the last 30 years producing and selling video programs on sexual harassment, diversity, leadership and other workplace issues to 89 companies listed in the Fortune 100 and countless other public and nonprofit organizations. Now more than ever, though, they’re experiencing a boom period. “People are reaching out a lot. #MeToo has changed a lot in the last year,” says Kantola CEO Allen Noren. “Organizations are getting much more serious about it. It’s so much more lurid now, in terms of the world knowing how bad harassment can be. We have clear details of what men like Harvey Weinstein have done. And where we are allows us to be more explicit with our training courses, too.”
But not everything has changed. In particular, sexual harassment training has long had the same problems in its execution. A 1997 study found that sexual harassment training didn’t significantly change employee behavior for the better, and a 2001 report found similar results — while men who did the training were more likely to say sexual behaviors at work were bad, they were no more likely to notice or report such behaviors. A 2016 report from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) concluded that trainings have failed to prevent workplace harassment because companies are “focused on simply avoiding legal liability” and use trainings to claim in court that they did all they could.
Another issue is that requirements on sexual harassment vary largely from state to state. For instance, 33 states have no requirements at all, while others like California or Maine require training for companies only with a certain number of employees. “It’s led to an industry of sex harassment training that’s been adapted to the letter of the law. But the law isn’t broad or generous on what constitutes sexual harassment. So subtle behaviors that can escalate into a dangerous situation or affect productivity often don’t qualify as sexual harassment in court,” says Sheerine Alemzadeh, co-executive director of the nonprofit Healing to Action and an expert on gender violence. “Usually then, the training is on incidents that are actionable. And that leaves people confused about what they can talk about.”
The confusion isn’t helped by the fact that the industry of sexual harassment training is still relatively young. The first videos, like 1981’s The Power Pinch, debuted months after the federal government first delivered guidelines on how to spot and manage sexual harassment at work. Power Pinch is maybe the earliest example of the format in which actors play out various forms of abuse in short vignettes, with a “host” or voiceover dictating what went wrong (or right) before delivering some questions for viewers to mull.
The video begins with a man with thick brows and square glasses, creeping up on a woman standing at a filing cabinet. Jazzy muzak floats in the background as he corners her and throws a hand on her shoulder. “Gotcha, babycakes!” he says in her ear, as she lets out a frustrated sigh. It then cuts to what appears to be a staged set of a tiny neighborhood watering hole, with actor Ken Howard (aka the coach in The White Shadow) leaning over the bar as if we’re meeting him for happy hour. “Good ol’ sex. What’s wrong with that?” Howard says to the camera, his words soundtracked by a funky bass riff. “Everything, as a matter of fact, when it’s unwelcome and when it occurs at work. And yet this thing called sexual harassment, which affects thousands each year, is taken about as seriously as a dirty joke.”
Watched with hindsight, these early 1980s videos seem comically ham-handed. Later in The Power Pinch, the thick-browed harasser offers to pour the same woman a cup of coffee, before purposefully spilling powdered creamer on her dress and rapidly pretending to help her by wiping her chest with a napkin. A similar PSA from the same era depicts a woman at a copier, who turns as a male peer enters the room. “You know, you’re doing a great job, but you’re not using all of your assets. With a body like that, you could really go places,” he says, eyeballing her. “Be a little more sexy. You’re talking about your job, here!”
As a longtime lawyer and harassment expert hired by companies to assess and improve workplaces, Patti Perez has seen a laundry list of problems with this widely accepted training format, even as the videos and scripts have evolved into something more nuanced. Now an executive with compliance-training firm Emtrain, Perez says one of the biggest issues is that mid-level managers and CEOs alike still see harassment training a “dreaded check-the-box activity,” an attitude that can rub off on their cohorts. “Other problems with how training has been done? [A focus] on what not to do, rather than what good behavior looks like. Failure to teach about civility and how to intervene if you see or hear something. Making it a one-and-done course. The goal of scaring, blaming and shaming, rather than increasing understanding and empathy, both necessary for behavior change,” she writes in an email.
Kantola’s Conley has mulled these flaws for a long time. When she first joined Kantola back in the late 1990s, the company was still in the early phases of developing its harassment curriculum. Older videos had a soft touch with its lessons, often focusing on defining the term or why it’s illegal rather than digging into the subtleties of abuse, Conley explains. Kantola’s buyers at the time were largely in middle management or in HR, and cared a lot about whether employees would “push back” on a lesson about sexual misconduct in the workplace, she adds. These days, though — even pre-#MeToo — Conley’s scripts feature detailed, true-to-life examples of abuse culled from in-depth interviews with people who innately understand workplace harassment, either as victims or advocates or both. It can take her up to six weeks to write up a package of video lessons. In all, she’s completed “40 or 50” original lessons.
Still, per Conley, much has stayed the same — even as societal understanding of sexual harassment has grown. Some lessons are “easy and obvious” to craft, as with scenarios in which a group of coworkers goes too far with a joke that offends another employee. But more insidious, long-term examples of abuse, as when a superior grooms an employee to accept unwelcome actions and behavior, are still difficult to communicate in the video-training format, she says.
“We try to come back to a pair of characters several times for these quid-pro-quo type scenarios, but it’s tough in a short video. You can’t make people watch a 90-minute clip that shows how a toxic relationship develops when a manager grooms their target and constantly sees what they can get away with,” she says. “Workplace compliments is another subject that’s challenging because you don’t want to jump down someone’s throat for an innocuous comment, but the same compliment can be wrong if they’re using it as a tool to belittle someone or focus attention on their appearance. In real life, how do you know what they meant?”
Sexual harassment was first recognized by the federal government because of a political gambit from a powerful white racist. When the proposed Civil Rights Act hit the floor of the House of Representatives in the spring of 1964, politician Howard W. Smith was there to push right back. The House Rules Committee Chairman had long been confused (and quite disgusted) by the idea that black people needed equal rights in public and in the workplace. In the final stretch of House debate over the new bill, Smith pulled out his trump card. The act would already ban workplace discrimination on the basis of color or race, but Smith proposed an amendment, adding “sex” to the list. Women deserved protection too, he claimed.
Hordes of men in the House burst into laughter at Smith’s idea, dismissing the notion that women needed workplace protections in an era when men did the breadwinning. Liberals immediately wondered whether Smith was trying to derail the entire Civil Rights Act by making it the subject of ridicule, a view held by many modern historians. Conservatives argued about whether Smith was legitimately trying to protect white women from encroaching racial change. Either way, the proposed amendment passed, as did the act itself on July 2, 1964.
More than 50 years have passed, but there’s still plenty of chaos waiting in the legal process for victims who want to report a complaint or take a case to court. Any claim must first be made to the EEOC, which works to resolve cases in mediation rather than federal court. Its 2016 report showed that the EEOC is able to reach settlements and give victims compensation in only about a quarter of reported incidents (6,750 in 2016, totalling $40 million in damages). Victims with cases that can’t be resolved by the agency are given the green light to take it to federal court, but only have three months to file a lawsuit.
Things only get harder from there. For decades, federal judges have leaned into a shockingly slender definition of what constitutes a hostile work environment, and even cases with repeated gropings, sexualized comments or propositions for sex have been shut down. Less than 2 percent of job discrimination lawsuits, which includes sexual harassment claims, make it to a jury, and only 4 percent of victims receive compensation. In acknowledgement of the minefields in the court process, some companies have defined sexual harassment as broadly as they can, giving the EEOC the power to punish employees even if the courts don’t, Elizabeth Tippett, a harassment policy expert and professor at the University of Oregon, writes in an op-ed. The issue? They haven’t been particularly bullish about leveraging that power for victims’ benefit, she says.
For all those reasons, preventing such behavior remains the priority, and sexual harassment training has tried to keep up with society’s own shifts over recent years. The aesthetics of many videos certainly have improved, with more professional staging, casting and camerawork. Emtrain’s Perez sent me links to short training videos that riff on current events (like that Google engineer’s manifesto on “political correctness” and female engineers) and work in concepts like “emotional intelligence,” rather than offering a to-do list. The scenarios depicted in training videos have also become more subtle, says Kantola’s Noren, with a greater emphasis on annoying behaviors, not just obvious harassment.
The experts I spoke to agree that using training to engage men in a conversation, rather than just lecturing via Powerpoint, is the right move. Perez, for one, has had success using small-group seminars where she guides the conversation. Alemzadeh also notes that tying harassment training together with diversity and inclusion training, rather than making them distinct “courses,” can inspire more positive questions and self-examination about why men hold the cultural prejudices they do, including about women.
That said, like always, change is slow. “I talked to an HR manager recently, and she confided that the COO of her company has said her job is to be a spy on the employees. If that’s the attitude, it’s going to be hard for any training to have the right impact,” Noren says. “It’s a multi-year project to change culture and make people feel empowered and comfortable. That’s why training has to be an ongoing thing in each office.” Moreover, even after #MeToo, for every company willing to invest in more and better training, there are 10 others who don’t bother with training at all or keep hitting rewind on their outdated presentations. And the disproportionately white-male universe of top managers remains in power in corporate America.
Still, Kantola’s Conley is proud to be shaping lessons on sexual abuse as a woman. She is grateful to have avoided any serious harassment herself, but stresses that any team working on the subject needs to include a woman’s perspective. Even men on Kantola’s production teams have expressed disbelief or confusion over what constitutes harassment, she says. After two decades, Conley is certain that her experience has brought more nuance to the training, and made the material more appealing for women who are watching.
As for the future, her optimism is, admittedly, blunted by the monolithic nature of abuse itself. “I don’t think human nature has changed that much in the last 20 years,” Conley says. “I hope our training has helped changed an office’s culture. But even today, people joke that they can’t say some joke because it’s sexual harassment, and then say it anyway. Unfortunately, I don’t think harassment is going away anytime soon. And people need a lot of reminders if we want to see real change.”