Harassment, Human Resources

Is Sexual Harassment Training Now Too Subtle?

Sexual harassment scandals have rocked a number of industries in recent months, from media and sports to business and politics. This has led to a renewed focus on sexual harassment training in the workplace. Employees need to know what types of behavior are acceptable and what is considered inappropriate and may violate company policies or the law.

Source: Franck Camhi / Getty Images Plus

In a recent interview for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, Stacey Vanek Smith interviewed employment lawyer Liz Tippett who has studied the evolution of sexual harassment training videos. The interview plays audio from several old and new training videos and provides some insights into the evolution of sexual harassment training.

The first video portrayed some blatant sexual harassment. “The guy is basically saying, show my client a good time, or you’re fired,” remarks Smith. “It is almost laughable. It’s so obviously wrong. But that was the point of the old videos—to show people what sexual harassment was and to make the point that this is not okay. But that was decades ago. Times have changed.”


Smith notes that over nearly 4 decades, training has moved from blatant, quid pro quo sexual harassment to more nuanced scenarios, “basically helping people in the modern workplace understand the sometimes subtle line between what is creepy and what is illegal.”

But now, rather than taking a linear path towards increasingly more enlightened sexual harassment training focusing on even subtler issues, Tippett suggests that there may be a need to revisit some of the more blatant issues once considered increasingly part of the past. This has much to do with the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the wave of accusations in its aftermath. “Harassment is about power and the abuse of power. And that has really faded away from current training,” says Tippett.

Sexual harassment training has evolved along with changes in the workplace and society in general. As more women have entered the workplace and even risen to positions of greater power, authority, and respect, training focused on subtler issues and gray areas. But recent scandals suggest there is still a place to put a spotlight on the type of blatant sexual harassment issues that were the focus of early trainings.