When on-the-job training can backfire

In the wake of a national report on sexual harassment, employers are re-examining their training policies with a critical eye.

Studies point to the importance of hiring diverse teams – these are safer environments for women and minorities, but they also benefit a company’s bottom line.

Yet diversity and sensitivity trainings have been criticized as superficial, cheesy or even boring. Sexual harassment training is often seen as another checkbox during orientation.

But some men’s reactions aren’t so jaded — some leave these mandatory trainings feeling blamed, isolated or angry.

“A lot of men just feel wrongfully accused or on the spot,” says Mitch Keil, founder of Dignity Awareness, a sexual harassment training workshop. “I think below that they all feel powerless to deal with it in any way, so a lot of men shut up or make a joke of it, and just feel threatened in these workshops.”

Related: How Men Can Help Women Fight Sexual Harassment

According to research by Harvard sociology professor Frank Dobbin, training can fail if it relies too heavily on legalese or portrays participants as “bad guys.”

“When you interview people who have had regular diversity training — white men who make most hiring decisions because they hold most leadership positions — they often come away angry, feeling blamed for something that isn’t their fault, very defensive of being sexist and racist,” Dobbin says.

Traditional strategies often backfire: as when trainings focus on the legal penalties a company could face for misbehavior.

“I think men don’t know what to do,” Keil says. “They want to make change, they want to help, they want to be a part of it – but they just don’t know how. And fear kind of keeps them quiet.”

Training that casts a positive light on participants instead, showing them what they can do to prevent harassment, is often more effective, Dobbin says.

Related: Why Most Sexual Harassment Training Videos Don’t Work

This is where we see more emphasis on bystander intervention, a kind of training that aims to empower employees to stop bad behavior when they witness it. People report leaving these types of trainings with a sense of positivity, Dobbin says. They feel that instead of being the problem causing damage to the job, they are “breaking the cycle”.

Better training should also include education, according to Joanne Lipman, author of “That’s What She Said,” a book about men and women in the workplace. Without a conversation involving both women and men, she says, male employees won’t have the training to recognize what discrimination and harassment look like to female employees.

“There are all these things that are invisible to men, and if we make them visible and make them aware of them, I think there are a lot of men who would like to try to help bridge the gap” , she says. “The vast majority of men are not sexual predators.”

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CNN Money (New York) First published January 29, 2018: 2:01 p.m. ET