More on workplace indoctrination

All power is abusable, and all abusable power will be abused. That applies to “training.”

My screed against compulsory indoctrination for employees drew several comments.

Nathan Newman finds my post “oddly libertarian” and argues — as if I’d questioned it — that employers have an obligation to ensure that supervisors keep their lust in check when it comes to subordinates. Of course sexual harrassment in the workplace is a real problem, and of course employers have an obligation to do something about it. It’s not the substance I object to: it’s being preached at, especially when there is precisely zero evidence that the “training” has any impact whatever on actual behavior. That in this case the preaching is to be done by state authority doesn’t make it, in my view, any better or any worse.

My position isn’t so much libertarian is it is individualistic; adults should resent, and where possible resist, being treated like children. There’s a curious symmetry between, on the one hand, a boss who enjoys the feeling of power that comes from forcing a subordinate to submit to unwanted sexual advances on the one hand and, on the other, the policy-makers who enjoy being able to send grown-ups back to kindergarten and the “trainers” who enjoy imposing their ideas on unwilling audiences.

(Where forced indoctrination is handed out as part of the punishment for a crime, as often happens in domestic violence cases, the sadistic element is both more explicit and more appropriate, but the element of domination is always there, more or less. “Traffic school” used to have something of the same element before it became a competitive business with the people working off their traffic tickets getting to choose their own programs; now it’s just a waste of time and resources.)

Several readers wrote in to point out that the restriction of the training requirement to supervisors suggests that the topic is not so much avoiding wrongful conduct but ensuring an appropriate response by those in charge. Again, that’s a legitimate goal, but one that might be served by a less heavy-handed process. Most supervisors are, after all, literate.

My friend Lowry Heussler, a (mostly) real-estate lawyer and sometime employee of the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development who has practiced workplace-discrimination law in Massachusetts and who is herself “differently abled” (by reason of a bad hip) to the point of needing a dog to help her get around, writes:

The training isn’t going to be about “Don’t take your wee-wee out and show it to your secretary.” It’s going to be about preventing respondeat superior liability from accruing to the University. At the most basic level, the University wants to be able to begin every defense to a sexual harassment case by showing they were not negligent — Why, just look at all this training they did!

Moving into the arena, there is a legitimate need to educate managers about how to respond to employee complaints.

“Oh Mr. Dithers, the janitor looks at my breasts when he talks to me.”

Bad response: “Who do you think I am, the kindergarten teacher? Grow up!”

Better response: “Why, Blondie, that’s just terrible. I’ll speak to him.”

Best response: “Let me just pull out my 576 page manual and figure out how to handle this, and I’ll get right back to you. Also, I thank you for keeping me informed. I live to make this world a better place, one whiny employee at a time. Hmm. We’re supposed to start with a series of interactive dialogues. Is Tuesday afternoon good for you?”

It should make you feel better to know that no one in the state government gives a rat’s ass about the quality of a woman’s life in the workplace. They care only about limiting liability. When I speak to women about handling sexual harassment in the workplace, I do not sugar-coat the truth. Nothing good will come of exercising your rights. Just wait, and take revenge quietly. A clever underling can ruin a career more effectively with sabotage than by telling the truth.

If you really want to get at the fun stuff, you could look at the policies of the agencies empowered to investigate and prevent discrimination. I had the surreal experience of making a command appearance at a “Train the trainer” seminar offered by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, or Morons Confabulating Alarming Delusions, as we lawyers call it.

Since the MCAD can order companies to undergo mandatory discrimination training (“Hey, lady, we know how to discriminate!”) after finding in favor of a complainant, it occurred to some weenie that they should have a stable of approved trainers. You wouldn’t want to recommend lawyers who actually know the law, because the law often conflicts with the MCAD’s view of things. So my erstwhile employer sent all the public housing lawyers to attend the housing-law “Train the trainer.” Sigh.

Some high points: One of my colleagues was kcked out and denied her certificate because she told an MCAD investigator that she should try to at least SOUND neutral when having ex parte communications with the parties. I received my certificate and promptly cut it up into tiny squares and mailed them to that colleague.

The buttheads who set up the seminar (covering disability discrimination among other things) never considered that participants might be themselves be disabled. This created a stage for one of my better (and crueler) moments. We learned that people cannot be expected to sit quietly in chairs and take notes for more than 20 minutes. Party games are encouraged to relieve the restlessness between juice break and nap time. So at abut 11:30, the leaders happily assigned each of us a number, made us all line up on a continuum, and had the lowest number pair off with the highest number and so on. This all required a lot of stepping nimbly around chairs and tables. My service dog and I retreated to the sidelines to wait until the line formed so as to avoid having some numbnuts step on his paw. I planned to figure out where I fit in the line and then take my place when the people had sorted themselves out.

So the head of the whole agency came over and yanked my arm hard enough to knock me off balance, saying “Come! Join right in!” I explained my bad balance and the dog paw problem, and the person entrusted with ferreting out discrimination in Massachusetts immediately suggested exclusion: “Oh! Why don’t you just sit this one out!”

Nothing would have made me happier, but I couldn’t resist a straight-line like that. I put on my saddest face. “Do you know how excluded that would make me feel?” I whispered.

He was horrified and stammered out a thanks for helping him understand, before turning scarlet and running away. The funny part is that I’ve seen employers or housing providers fined and held up to public scorn for making a simple mistake like that.

The result of these hugely expensive train-the-trainer sessions is that some of Boston’s finest real estate salespeople (some of them may actually have graduated from high school) are now empowered to make official statements on the law of reasonable accommodation in housing, or the definition of “steering,” or the difference

between affirmative action and unlawful reverse discrimination. These are topics that I would not presume to teach without hours of preparation and a thorough review of recent developments in the law. But the MCAD is not interested in increasing public understanding of the law. They have an axe to grind and it is much easier to grind it if the public is misinformed as to the rights and duties under the law.

Makes me want to go put superglue on all their toilet seats.

Libertarians have one good insight, which of course they borrowed from liberals: human beings are not to be trusted when they have power over other human beings. They’re wrong, in my view, to imagine that the state is the sole, or even the primary, source of abusable power: the family, the school (public or private), the neighborhood, the church, and the workplace can all create power relationships that expose subordinates to exploitation, and sometimes the power of the state is the only, or at least the best, remedy for such problems, as the civil rights laws illustrate.

But since all power is abusable, and since all abusable power is likely to be abused, we need to be careful about how power is handed out and vigilant in repressing abuses. The trainer who denies someone a professional certification as retaliation for expressing a dissenting viewpoint ought to be fired; but we should also inquire whether that trainer should have been given such arbitrary power in the first place. The same applies to the power of, for example, drug treatment counselors in drug-court settings.

Let us all repeat Jefferson’s oath: “I have sworn upon the altar of Almighty God eternal hostitility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” (And, of course, the body of woman.) The petty tyranny of the “training” session isn’t the worst tyranny or the most worth fighting, but you do what you can, where you are, with what you have.

Update Another reader who has been through the mill writes:

I have lived several years overseas in various cultures. It was maddening to have to sit through “sensitivity training” in which it was made clear that all cultures are to be respected and invited into the mix–except European white. I was to be ashamed of my nebulous connection to Christopher Columbus and all those subsequent white foreigners and I was expected to abjure all loyalty to, and enjoyment of, white middle-class music, literature, clothing, food, and (unspoken) laws and regulations. I walked out.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: