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'It's Not Just About Sex Anymore': Is Kentucky's Anti-Harassment Training Effective?

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At some point in their careers, most Kentucky state government employees are required to take “anti-harassment training.”

And, if you’ve had to do harassment training for your job, the curriculum will sound pretty familiar:

There are slides that provide definitions of state laws regarding harassment, some scenarios for participants to discuss and a27-minute video screening, which covers racism, sexism, religious discrimination, ableism and ageism.

This training put on by the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet makes a point of saying it’s not just about sexual harassment. In fact, screens pop up to remind employees “harassment: it’s not just about sex anymore.”

Records show that state employees have filed about 250 formal sexual harassment complaints over the last five years — a number experts agree most likely represents only a portion of the total incidents.

As the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting wrote in March, there are inconsistencies from agency to agency regarding the depth of sexual harassment investigations, the severity of punishment, and even what agencies call the behavior.

But there are also differences in how each cabinet trains its employees about harassment; and in light of the #MeToo movement, there’s been increased interest from organizations in finding out what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.

Ignoring Context And Culture

Columbia University professor Elissa Perry says there are a couple of signs that Kentucky’s anti-harassment training curriculum — which was obtained through an open records request — may be missing the mark.

Perry studies sexual harassment training effectiveness, which is still an emerging field of research. She said there are some consistent findings that point to potential problems with the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet’s anti-harassment training — like teaching employees to pay attention to context and workplace culture.

“If you think about the training and don’t consider the context in which you are implementing that training, then it is hard to imagine that that training can be effective,” Perry said. “So the organizational climate in which you insert that training is really important.”

That’s difficult in a massive organization like Kentucky’s state government.

“That is one of the challenges presented, not just in this training but in all the professional development opportunities that originate out of this office,” said Christopher Johnson, executive director for the Office of Diversity, Equality, and Training at the Personnel Cabinet.

Johnson’s office is in charge of implementing these anti-harassment trainings. And he said one major problem is that there are people working all over the state in different agencies doing different types of jobs — ranging from forest wardens to corrections officers to administrators in Frankfort.

That's compounded by the fact that the state hasn’t done very much to ensure that harassment training is consistent. The Personnel Cabinet hosts training on a monthly basis, both in-person and online, but it’s up to the individual agency to determine when — or even if — its employees take it.

“We’re working with about 30,000 employees and cabinets,” Johnson said. “Whether or not this training is mandatory varies based on state agency. Some agencies mandate this on a biannual basis — every two years. Some mandate it annually."

And some, Johnson said, have a new employee take the training within the first 60 days of becoming a state employee.

Broad Training Doesn't Address 'Ambiguous Behavior'

Another potential issue is that, similar to many organizations, the state’s three-hour “anti-harassment training” is very broad. But when instructors do talk about sexual harassment, it’s mostly restricted to legal definitions, common types of sexual harassment and agency liability.

Perry said this type of training sends people away with some useful information; however, her research has found that these legal-heavy, harassment overviews have almost no effect on people’s long-term behavior or attitudes about sexual harassment.

“Knowledge is relatively straightforward, but if you really want to change people’s behaviors, it’s a more comprehensive approach,” Perry said.

What people need, she said, is guidance in applying that knowledge, otherwise there can be confusion about what she calls“ambiguous behavior.”These are actions or words that fall into a gray area outside the legal definition of sexual harassment, but because of tone or context can still make people feel uncomfortable or targeted.

Assessing the 250 sexual harassment complaints state employees filed over the past five years, there’s a lot of this behavior: things like continually sending gifts to a coworker, suggestive text messages, delivering handwritten notes asking another employee out, or spreading sexual rumors.

Same Training, Different Result?

Within those 250 Kentucky state employee incidents, another potential problem emerges: about eight percent of the complaints result in the offender or an entire department being re-enrolled in the state’s anti-harassment training.

For some agencies — like Energy and Environment Cabinet — this is a common response to complaints. Others, like the Department of Corrections, have no record of re-enrolling offenders over the last five years.

It’s another inconsistency in how training is implemented, but Johnson said it’s because the personnel cabinet is “dealing with agencies that deal with this in different ways.”

“There’s no uniform standard timeline for employees to take this course, necessarily,” Johnson said. “When there is an issue that arises, one of the first things that we are adamant about is that an employee retake that anti-harassment course. We want to bring that back to the front of their minds, and so that’s why you are seeing in many instances employees re-enroll.”

But Perry is skeptical that the offender retaking the exact same curriculum will produce different results.

“Why, a second time through, do you think it’s going to be more effective?” she asked.

Looking forward, Johnson said the personnel cabinet intends to use trainings to more directly address sexual harassment; in December 2017, they organized a course focused on educating the state’s political appointees about sexual harassment.

It begins with avideo of Governor Matt Bevin, in which he tells viewers: “If your mother wouldn’t approve of it, don’t do it. It’s kind of that simple."

“So, anybody who was appointed by this governor was required to take this specific sexual harassment prevention for executive leadership,” Johnson said. “It is different in the sense that we focused specifically on the sexual harassment piece whereas the anti-harassment course that we generally teach focuses on various forms.”

Johnson said they are exploring options to roll this out more broadly, and have already given the course to other state agencies — though on an as-requested basis.

Ideally, Johnson said, this training would be mandatory for all state employees — because as the national conversation about sexual harassment continues, it's apparent the state's current training isn't adequately addressing the problem.