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Workplace sexual harassment programs, Part 2: Adverse effects?

We continue today with subject matter initially introduced in our October 14 blog post, namely, the unintended and adverse consequences visited upon female employees in workplaces having formal sexual harassment training programs.

That is the contention of Kim Elsesser, a psychologist and lecturer who specializes in gender-related matters.

Here's a hypothetical to quickly get across what Elsesser's talking about.

A senior executive -- a male -- greatly values the smarts of a younger female employee and her professional evaluations and input. He wants to take her to lunch occasionally to discuss office matters, as well as to offsite seminars and conventions.

But he doesn't. Owing to his company's constant stressing of potentially problematic situations in the workplace through formal sexual harassment programs, he has become, as Elsesser notes is true of many male employees, "overly cautious in interactions with the opposite sex."

His hesitance to act hurts him, the company and, of course, his astute younger colleague. It creates, says Elsesser, a "sex partition" that operates as a glass ceiling to bar the upward rise of competent female workers.

And here's another thing noted by Elsesser. She points to empirical evidence indicating that a fundamental and quite pernicious assumption is operative with sexual harassment prevention training programs. Many employees -- especially men -- believe that the underlying rationale of such initiatives is to protect women in the workplace. That view, notes Elsesser, "carries with it images of weak women who can't fend for themselves."

People assuming that Elsesser wants to scrap formal sexual harassment programs are mistaken. In fact, she avidly endorses them for the spotlight they put on sexual harassment and the helpful dialogue they encourage.

She would like to see a readjustment in training, though, that focuses more on identifying and eliminating negative behavior rather than on what she thinks is undue emphasis on simply curtailing business risks.

A central bottom line with Elsesser is the importance of a workplace realization among all employees regarding "the importance of including all coworkers in their social [and professional] circles."

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