Remember the episode of The Office when the whole gang had to undergo sensitivity training because of one tone-deaf joke from Michael Scott? Or when Dr. Dorian on Scrubs had to watch a video called “Boundaries,” just for innocently touching a student’s heart? Or when Frasier attended a sexual harassment seminar after inadvertently propositioning a co-worker? How we all laughed.
The notion of workplace sensitivity training has been derided so often and so completely, it’s now nothing but a punchline. Part of the gag is always the New Age mumbo-jumbo spouted by the sensitivity trainer. But at the heart of the comedy is the idea that, in these enlightened times, anybody would need instruction in how not to be sexist or racist or demeaning. Sensitivity training is clearly needless bureaucracy; there’s nobody left who requires it.
And yet, CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi allegedly told a colleague he wanted to “hate fuck” her. And yet, the RCMP currently faces a class-action lawsuit from close to 350 former and current female officers alleging harassment. And yet, American Apparel CEO Dov Charney was fired as CEO after years upon years of allegations of inappropriate conduct. And yet, Tinder suspended its chief marketing officer for abuse of a fellow executive—including calling her a “whore” in front of the CEO. And yet, every Canadian woman stands a 51% chance of being sexually assaulted over her lifetime. And yet, and yet, and yet. Each incident underscores how workplace training on responding to sexual harassment isn’t superfluous. It’s vital.
Harassment is as bad for business as it is morally abhorrent. It drives talented employees out of companies (studies find 75 to 90% of women leave an employer after an incident), corrodes morale, and spurs absenteeism and low productivity. One estimate suggests a major U.S. corporation will lose close to $7 million to the effects of harassment each year.
Despite these high costs, only 40% of companies require sexual harassment training on an annual basis. Part of this is an issue of expense, but it’s also a matter of understanding why education is needed. It isn’t solely to instruct men not to abuse their co-workers. Nor is it to provide information for women on how to protect themselves from harassment. For education programs to be successful, they need to encourage everyone in a workplace to intervene if they see abuse. This model, known as “bystander intervention,” strives to ensure that misconduct isn’t ignored or dismissed. As a recent parliamentary report noted, we need to learn to “challenge certain workplace behaviours and attitudes, such as, ‘It’s just a joke,’ ‘She must have deserved it’ and ‘It’s none of my business.’” Along with training, companies need to provide mechanisms for third-party intervention, like confidential complaint hotlines.
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We need to shift the onus away from victims when it comes to reporting abuse. Too often, co-workers ignore a situation or only offer support in the aftermath. That, in turn, leaves women feeling alone and makes it even less likely they’ll report the problem themselves (one in three victims currently comes forward). It goes against our basic instincts to speak up, particularly when the abuser is a superior. Preventing sexual harassment must become a collective responsibility, not an individual burden.
Is it time to stop mocking sensitivity training? Perhaps. Or maybe we should realize what the real joke is here: that we’re not as smart as we thought.