Training and Sexual Harassment

I’m not on Mark’s side on this one, even if the training in question is as ham-handed and badly implemented as he expects, and even if our common employer (same university, different campuses) is cynically viewing it merely as pre-emptive of future litigation risk.

Briefly: inadequate on-the-job continuous education is one of the main management deficiencies in nearly all public agencies. It may often be done badly, but instead of railing at that we should be looking for ways to do it well, because it’s important to our ability to create value. Not only men but also senior women would do well to be modest about our enlightenment and (a separate but equal issue) our practice in the matter of how we treat women in any workplace. (Yes, and minorities of all sorts; humans are hard-wired for dysfunctional prejudices and exclusionary behavior that we can only suppress by being aware and practiced in dealing with it. Like overcoming our genetic proclivity to eat too much fat and salt, it’s not just a matter of will and good intentions but something that needs socially organized, serious, support.)

I. As regards continuing education, whatever we call it: we both work for a company that for the most part acts as though job skills and knowledge are something to fill up students with once at the beginning of their careers.

But a career is nothing like this, indeed, we expect our own faculty employees not only to go on learning but to find new stuff other people can learn through their entire employment. (It is true that we seem to think faculty magically know how to teach from day one and need no formal help getting better at it, ever; go figure. I think the relative quality of our pedagogy and our research speaks volumes in favor of lifetime, ongoing, collegial, learning, but that’s a topic for another post.) And very high performance firms seem to have a different idea entirely. On-the-job teaching (something much more formalized than merely doing a job and happening to learn therefrom) is a continuous enterprise at, for example, Toyota, and the last time I looked, Motorola held its managers to a minimum of 10% of payroll for training of employees at all levels, all the time.

I don’t know a better word than training for formal workplace job skill development outside academic degree programs. Puppies (and new soldiers) get trained, but puppies also get fed and hugged and loved and I am personally happy to get all I can of that to this very day. I think the word is unexceptionable. Training can take all sorts of forms, from the worst sort of lecturing-at didaction to creative and effective exercises and practice. The good kind is a lot better than the bad, but this doesn’t condemn the institution across the board.

[Full disclosure: (1) I have a professional wife and two daughters, and my mother and grandmother were professionals in very male work contexts (sculptor and politician respectively). I have collaborated with women as peers and junior colleagues all my life and liked it. I have rarely reported to a woman boss, so I don’t know for sure how I would handle it, but I hope it would be a non-issue. In any case, I am very interested in a better professional life in every way for women. (2) Like Mark, I do teaching for a living, (my own includes regular mid-career programs). I admit to a real conflict of interest when I say I think teaching done well is just a really splendid thing that society should buy lots more of, especially at my store but also at Mark’s. ]

II. This particular training is (again, successfully or not) aimed at a real problem. The last place I worked had more than a hundred faculty including no women with tenure (also no people of color with tenure). In the last 15 years, things have improved there, but not spectacularly. Maybe this is because of the right-tail dispersion difference that Larry Summers got in trouble over, or because of discrimination happening earlier in the pipeline that the school couldn’t overcome by itself, but maybe it was also because a lot of the faculty were simply clueless about how their behavior affected women and had decided that because they were good people and frequently asserted their rightness of thinking, there was no work to be done.

How could this be? Well, I recall two near-crises of misunderstanding involving groups of foreign students about whose very deep cultural conventions an American faculty was simply clueless, and who were repeatedly insulted first by things we did that were unimaginably crude in their social structure, and then by our extreme laziness in trying to find out what was really going on. I have been present at a serious discussion between Harvard colleagues about whether Catholics are “really capable of independent thinking”, and to emphasize the cluelessness, the parties knew my last name but almost certainly couldn’t have known that I’m not in fact Catholic. My whole intercultural experience with people in several European, one Latin American, one Asian and one Middle Eastern context has been that I am frequently not as hip as I feel I am, or sometimes simply wrong, about the experience others are having of me, and I think we are well advised to take any help anyone offers at getting better at helping people who are not entirely like us create value. I think women are not entirely like men.

Oh yeah; I also see no reason a workplace with increasing numbers of women supervisors shouldn’t be at risk of unintended harassment (or behavior that feels like it) of men by women, so my point is in principle symmetrical. And I think this particular kind of training would benefit from helping people hate the sin and love the sinner more, so to speak, and terrify people who know they will do something careless or thoughtless at some point despite their best efforts less. Many of my colleagues have simply stopped risking classroom discussion at which someone might take offense at something. The institutional atmosphere is overweighted to support anyone’s right not to be offended by anything anyone ever does, and too little directed at reminding people that there’s a lot to learn from plain flawed humans and that forgiveness and understanding of defects we all have is a really admirable virtue. But neither of these considerations justifies trashing the whole enterprise; some things are worth doing badly even if its a lot better to do them well, or because doing them badly at first is the only way to learn to do them better (ready/fire/aim principle).

Mark is absolutely right that to the degree that this program is or feels like an indoctrination–that it seems to be telling us what to think–it’s to be deplored. Good teaching of any kind is about unveiling what others think (and feel) and what’s known in the way of relevant facts. What the law allows and doesn’t allow in a workplace is relevant whether or not a trainee thinks the law is right. No employer has the right to require anyone to believe anything, but employees have a duty to pay attention to how their colleagues take this and that behavior, and a right to know what the rules are without inadvertent experiments that get them in trouble.

Training of the type Mark deplores has two other functions in an organization, independent of whether it actually improves individuals’ insights. One is to signal what the firm thinks is important enough to pay for (with salaried staff time and the direct costs of the training). This signalling effect can certainly be undermined by cynical or incompetent training or going through the motions, but it doesn’t have to be. The second is to establish what everyone knows everyone else knows (this effect requires that the training engage everyone, not just the supervisors). A harassee uncertain of whether what she’s experienced is really an offense will have a better idea after good training either way, and will know that the harasser also knows what’s what. Potential abusers will know that their targets know their rights.

On balance, my sense is that a wide range of behaviors mostly acted out by supervisors (but also by peers), and feared even when they don’t occur, continues to keep all sorts of people in workplaces, including my own, from creating the most possible value. I think a good part of this is unintended and the ‘harassers’ really don’t know what they’re doing, and would do less of it with some quality training. With all the ways the UC program might go off the tracks, and I haven’t had my dose yet, I think Mark is wrong to rail at the enterprise as he does.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.