Members of Congress now have to do sexual-harassment training - here's what would actually make it effective

Members of Congress now have to do sexual-harassment training - here's what would actually make it effective

sexual harassment boss office

David Pereiras/Shutterstock

  • Sexual harassment training has been around for decades, but there's little research on whether it works.
  • Limited studies show the trainings don't help unless people believe they're already working in an ethical organization.
  • If employees don't think their complaints will be taken seriously, it doesn't matter whether or not a company requires sexual harassment training.

A flood of sexual harassment allegations, many of which have been festering unreported for years, are now coming to the surface across the country. Stories of highly inappropriate conduct have emerged from production offices in Hollywood, tech circles in Silicon Valley, and news bureaus in New York and Washington DC.

These accusations are beginning to shed new light on a simple, disturbing, age-old trend: Men in power often take advantage of their status to prey on the women and men working below them.

The allegations extend to the halls of Congress, and hit both sides of the aisle. Senator Al Franken (D-MN) has been accused of sexually assaulting a radio host before he was a sitting senator. And voters in Alabama are deciding whether to send Republican Judge Roy Moore, a man who's been accused of assault by seven women, to represent them in the Senate.


Beverly Young Nelson roy moore accuser

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Beverly Young Nelson holds her high school yearbook, signed by Roy Moore. She has accused Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore of sexually abusing her when she was 16. Moore is fighting accusations from at least 7 women alleging that he pursued sexual relationships with teenagers when he was in his 30s.

Many women in Washington say sexual harassment has been rampant in politics for years. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) told NBC that she avoided the elevator when she was an intern on the Hill because she didn't want to get assaulted. Former Representative Mary Bono (R-CA) told reporters that she was harassed on the House floor when she was a sitting congresswoman. Women on Capitol Hill even have a running word-of-mouth list of the creepiest men in Congress.

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives announced that it will institute mandatory anti-sexual-harassment training for members of Congress and their staffs. The Senate made a similar move last week.

"Our goal is not only to raise awareness, but also make abundantly clear that harassment in any form has no place in this institution," Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said in a statement Tuesday.

But here's the thing: Mandatory sexual-harassment trainings may not help curb harassment on the Hill, or anywhere else.


Only a culture change will make things better

Claire McCaskill

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) said she avoided the elevator when she was an intern on the Hill because she didn't want to get assaulted.

Professor Vicki Magley is one of the few psychologists who's researched sexual-harassment trainings in the workplace. She told Business Insider that it's hard to quantify whether such education efforts are effective, since the effects are so poorly studied.

One reason for this, Magley said, is that companies are often too afraid to study their own trainings to find out if they work. After being asked to evaluate a company's sexual harassment training program, Magley said, she has often had the project canceled before completion. It's a catch-22: companies don't know what works because they're too scared to find out.

Despite the lack of data, Magley's research has found one basic indicator of whether a sexual harassment training will work.

"It's about the climate," she said. "When employees perceived that their company was ethical, their knowledge improved and their attitudes changed as a result of the harassment prevention training... they take it seriously because they think that the organization is taking it seriously."

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission came to a similar conclusion when it undertook a review of harassment in the workplace in 2016.


EEOC commissioner Chai Feldblum, who co-authored that report, told Business Insider that studies suggest very few employees who've been sexually harassed file official complaints.

"Only about 15% of people ever, ever choose to come through our doors and even start the legal process," she said.

Despite those disheartening findings, there are a few key things Feldblum says all organizations can do to make their trainings more successful.

What effective training looks like

First, companies should spell out what behaviors will not be tolerated at work, Feldblum said. Then they should describe in very simple terms how employees can report unwelcome behavior. And finally, perception is key - people feel free to come forward to report inappropriate advances if they know complaints are taken seriously, investigated, and lead to action.

That kind of efficient and fair system is a boon to employers' bottom line in the long run, Feldblum says, "because it is likely to stop the next incident of unwelcome conduct."


But national numbers show it's still not happening.

The EEOC reports that as many as 75% women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, even if they don't call it that. And victims are not just women - earlier this year, researchers at the University of Texas reported that men in the military are 10 times more likely to experience sexual harassment than civilian men.

me too march los angeles

David McNew/Getty Images

Demonstrators participate in the #MeToo Survivors' March in response to several high-profile sexual harassment scandals on November 12, 2017 in Los Angeles.

Three quarters of those who experience sex-based harassment at work don't talk to any superiors about it. And 90% of individuals who say they have experienced harassment never take any formal action, the EEOC says.

Some of that could be due to companies' lack of follow-through and secretive non-disclosure processes.

In Congress, for example, there's a 90-day waiting period before an employee can press sexual-assault charges. During that time, complainants are required to attend counseling and mediation sessions with their alleged perpetrator. If an employee still wants to press charges after that, The Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 states that they can submit a complaint within a three-month window (after the first 90 days has passed): "not later than 90 days, but not sooner than 30 days, after the end of the period of mediation." The policy doesn't extend to interns.


On Wednesday, a group of female lawmakers started pressing for a bill that would change that internal reporting process in Congress by removing the counseling and mediation requirements, and extending the deadline to 180 days, as The Hill reports.

The lawmakers are calling it the 'Me Too' Act.