Why we need sexual harassment training

In a scene from the movie "Twilight," Edward the vampire enters a biology class and is seated next to the object of his desire, Bella. He then does what every red-blooded male vampire in love would do: He runs out of the classroom. Does he flee to resist the urge to do what vampires do? Or did he attend a sexual harassment training class?

How ironic that the scene is set inside a biology classroom. Now let's morph the setting to a college biology laboratory with pairs of students scattered about the room. What if some wannabe "Edward" lacking self-control gives into his urge and steals a kiss on the neck from a coed who squirms away from him? I wonder if, upon seeing such lust, UC Irvine professor Alexander McPherson -- who wrote the Nov. 21 Op-Ed article "The sham of sex harassment training" -- would dismiss Edward's actions as freedom of expression? And would the professor know his supervisory responsibility as a witness or dismiss the incident as "a childish piece of theater"? Maybe McPherson would take no action because otherwise he would be betraying his belief that sexual harassment training is a "disgraceful sham" and is "politically charged."

"Unctuous twaddle" disguised as sexual harassment training serves a purpose. Substantiated allegations of sexual harassment violations subject employers to lawsuits and payments to the victims. Sexual harassment training is an attempt to prevent this type of discrimination and the costs associated with liability.

So what is all this hot fuss about sexual harassment itself?

Sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination, a violation of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, and Chapter 6 of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment in part as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or other verbal or physical conduct" that is directed at a person because of his or her gender. It is either linked to employment or substantially interferes with an employee's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.

The professor suggests there is no evidence that sexual harassment training will discourage harassers or aid in alerting the faculty to the presence of harassment.

There is no raw data to my knowledge that would reveal how many people sexual harassment training has discouraged from becoming harassers. However, I suspect part of the problem in gathering such numbers would be that the majority of the potential harassers, being either male or female, would not step up and admit to "being stopped in their tracks" by taking such a class. One could argue that the number of sexual harassment complaints by employees should be reduced because of the training classes, but the opposite usually occurs. That is due to employees being made aware of what constitutes sexual harassment and the procedures for handling such complaints.

As to evidence being presented that shows the training discourages potential harassers, after attending sexual harassment classes I have heard several employees tell the presenter, "Now I know what I'm not supposed to be doing." Clearly these employees were stating that they did not know or understand how their conduct was a form of harassment. How is an employer to know who would benefit and who wouldn't? Better to teach everyone than leave out one person who needs it.

Just as a chemistry teacher requires his students to wear eye protection and gloves while working with chemicals, sexual harassment training attempts to provide employees and supervisors with a form of protection; that is to say, how not to become a subject of investigation because of a lack of knowledge of state and federal laws.

Now back to the hypothetical kissing incident. The victim files a sexual harassment lawsuit. How do you think a civil jury would relate to McPherson seated before them, who asserts proudly that he had refused to participate in sexual harassment training he considered to be "silliness" and presented by "sanctimonious half-wits" because it impinged on his academic freedom? I can hear the collective roar of every employment discrimination attorney shouting "punitive damages."

I would think McPherson could give up an afternoon if it might one day help a student. Don't we all have time for that? Or does everyone in academia already know everything?

James Rodrigo Retana is an administrative investigator for L.A. County who investigates allegations of employment discrimination, including sexual harassment.