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Most People Don’t Need Harassment Prevention Training, So What’s the Point?

Toby Graham

Most People Don’t Need Harassment Prevention Training, So What’s the Point?

If you think you don’t need to undergo sexual harassment prevention training, you’re probably right. Most people have no reason to sit through a training course.

Of any length.


Specifically, about 85% of us already know how to behave appropriately in the workplace and will never harass a colleague, because we know it’s wrong and have no inclination to. Another 5% will engage in harassment regardless of what anyone tells them. Only 1 in 10 people get something out of the experience.

That’s according to Ken White, an attorney, former federal prosecutor, and primary voice behind the legal blog Popehat. White, who has presented seminars on sexual harassment prevention to organizations throughout the U.S., recently wrote an article for The Atlantic in which he addressed a fundamental question: What is the point of anti-harassment training?

His answer is, frankly, stunning:

“I address the ‘What’s the point?’ issue every time I give my presentation. I always start by telling my audience the 85/10/5 rule. Here’s the rule: 85 percent of you don’t need training and if left alone, you won’t sexually harass anyone. You don’t need to listen to me for two hours; you’re the collateral damage here. Then there’s the 10 percent of you who might sexually harass a colleague, but you can be convinced not to. Congratulations! You’re teachable. Finally, there’s the 5 percent of you—the 5 percent of humanity that assures steady work to lawyers and emergency-room doctors. You will always do whatever amuses you. But, if you sit through my training, we can prove we tried.

That’s legally significant.”

In other words, anti-harassment training is arguably more about minimizing employer liability than it is about mitigating actual employee misconduct. And an attorney renowned for his work in preventing sexual harassment is the first to admit that what he does is largely “theater.”

That said, like an unforgettable performance of Othello or Wicked, effective sexual harassment prevention training has a theatrical power that transcends a rote presentation of “do this” and “don’t do that.” Presented correctly, writes White, it “works by changing attitudes”:

“Even audiences that begin the training with folded arms and closed minds can be moved when they hear about someone like Janet Orlando, who had to fight a lengthy legal battle after she was spanked and demeaned in front of a crowd of co-workers. Employees conditioned by talk radio to believe that sexual-harassment law punishes trifles can end the session appalled at the sort of conduct that’s escaped legal consequences. The right training doesn’t just tell employees what the rules are, it convinces them they can follow those rules.”

Read “Can Sexual-Harassment Training Stop the Next Les Moonves?”

Perhaps we’re being a little glib here, but so is White. As a prominent attorney and legal scholar, he knows that the conversation about workplace harassment can feel generalized and oversimplified. His point is that it’s not so much what we say about misbehavior, but how we say it—which shapes the way we think about what we say about behavior, which shapes the way we behave—

You know what? Just read the article. There are a couple great details in it you won’t want to miss—like White’s anecdote about someone who wanted to run a team-building exercise at a nudist camp. Seriously. Wonder if that guy was part of the 10%…

Toby Graham

Toby manages the marketing communications team here at KPA. She's on a quest to help people tell clear, fun stories that their audience can relate to. She's a HUGE sugar junkie...and usually starts wandering the halls looking for cookies around 3pm daily.

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