Sexual Harassment Training: Person versus Machine

By Preusser, Melissa K.; Bartels, Lynn K. et al. | Public Personnel Management, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Sexual Harassment Training: Person versus Machine


Preusser, Melissa K., Bartels, Lynn K., Nordstrom, Cynthia R., Public Personnel Management


The use of technology in the workplace has increased drastically over the last two decades. This is especially true in the area of training. According to a report by the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD), organizations delivered about 10.5 percent of their training through technology in 2001 up from 8.8 percent in 2000. (1) The use of technology in training has many advantages including decreased costs, self-paced instruction, and uniform content. (2) While the usefulness of computer-based training is readily apparent when one is training computer software programs such as Excel or Windows, it is less obvious whether this type of training is effective for soft-skills training (such as interpersonal skills or sexual harassment). The current research is designed to address this issue examining whether computer-based sexual harassment training is effective in promoting trainee satisfaction and learning compared to the more traditional instructor-led training.

Focusing on how to most effectively deliver sexual harassment training content is important due to the many organizational and personal consequences associated with sexual harassment. Sexual harassment has been linked with increased job stress, loss of work commitment, decreased satisfaction, loss of customers, absenteeism, turnover, transfer requests, damage to the company's image, etc. (3) Monetarily, organizations also feel the effects of sexual harassment when a case is litigated. There are approximately 60 cases of sexual harassment filed per workday around the country and the average payout per case is around $38,500. (4) Since the 1991 amendments to Title VII, which allow for jury trials in sexual harassment cases, the awards have been as high as $34 million for damages as was the case for Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing. (5)

Given the ramifications associated with sexual harassment, organizations have been scrambling to ensure that employees are fully briefed as to what constitutes sexual harassment and what actions they should take as either victims of the behavior or as supervisors who learn of potentially illegal conduct. (6) Often the first place employers turn is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Guidelines (1980) where the legal definition of sexual harassment is presented:

   Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other
   verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual
   harassment when: submission to or rejection of this conduct
   explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment,
   unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or
   creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment
   (p.203). (7)

Unfortunately, the definition is fairly vague allowing for different interpretations across individuals. (8) What may be perceived as innocent flirting by one employee may be construed as unwelcome harassment by another. (9) Consistent with this, human resource professionals report that the majority of employees are uncertain as to what behaviors legally constitute sexual harassment. (10) In an effort to bridge this knowledge gap, most organizations now have explicit written policies pertaining to sexual harassment. (11) But policies alone are not sufficient to curb sexual harassment. Instead, policies complemented by sexual harassment training are cited as a more effective approach to decreasing sexual harassment and the organization's legal liability. (12) Several states have specifically put forth legislation that either requires or strongly encourages employers to provide harassment prevention training including California, Connecticut, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Vermont. (13) Training may include some or all of the following components: definitions and types of sexual harassment; company policies, and video or role-play exercises.

If prevailing laws are not enough to encourage employers to provide sexual harassment training, the potential return on investment for providing such training may be. …

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