Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Congress’s New Sexual-Harassment Training Probably Won’t Help

  • Three states made training mandatory with minimal effects
  • ‘The people who are going to do it don’t care’ about training

In an effort to address charges that sexual harassment runs rampant in the Capitol, the U.S. Congress will require members and staff to undergo sexual harassment training. Three states have taken a similar approach, and the track record is not encouraging.

California and Connecticut have made sexual harassment training mandatory for supervisors in companies with more than 50 employees. In Maine, firms with 15 or more workers must provide training. All three require information to be posted in the workplace that details the complaint process for employees who have been subject to harassment.

None of the states have seen a meaningful or consistent decrease in reports of sexual harassment since training became mandatory. In California, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing is planning to survey business owners in order to determine why the training, mandated since 2005, isn’t working, and what it should do instead.

“The social science is not in on whether training overall is helpful,” said Kevin Kish, director of the California agency. “Sometimes, training can be counterproductive and actually increase the likelihood of harassment taking place.”

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been preparing new recommendations for harassment enforcement and training that’s expected to be released in the next four months. The agency was critical of the current state of prevention training, writing in a report that three-quarters of harassment incidents probably go unreported.

Starting this year, California businesses that provide janitorial services of any size will be required to provide training, because it’s a job where men often supervise women working in empty buildings after regular business hours, Kish said. New York is considering mandatory training for companies that employ maids.

Connecticut, which first required training in 1992, has offered free classes the last half dozen years to get better information to smaller employers, said Cheryl Sharp, deputy director of the state’s Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, which enforces harassment laws. Complaints remain steady at more than 100 a year, she said.

Story: Why Your HR Department Can’t Stop Sexual Harassment

Maine, which in 1991 became the first state to require training, beefed up enforcement last year to ensure it actually gets delivered, said Amy Sneirson, executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission. The state hadn’t had anyone checking for 25 years, she said, adding that she had no reason to think firms weren’t in compliance.

Total complaints have fluctuated in Maine. They are down from their all-time highs, but in the last five to six years have risen as often as not.

“[Sexual harassment] is pretty resistant to any training, because the people who are going to do it, don’t care,” she said. “Generally speaking, the sexual harassment complaints that we get tend to be based on situations where there’s a power differential between the harasser and the person who is being harassed. That hasn’t changed as much as you’d like to think.”

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