Thursday, November 19, 2009


Ask the Administrator: Let's Go to the Videotape!

An occasional correspondent writes:

At one of my adjunct gigs (where I teach just once a week) the HR department has sent me a 45 minute online training video about harassment in the workplace complete with a quiz I have to pass. Is this a reasonable thing to ask of a very part time employee? They tell me it's mandatory.

None of my other jobs make me do this kinda thing. I mean if it was one video that would be one thing, but I have a sneaking suspicion that an HR department that does this once is liable to do it repeatedly.

Plus I have this crazy theory that people can treat each other respectfully without 45 minute training videos.

None of what follows is intended to dismiss the concept of harassment. It's intended to explain the choice of measures used against it.

A few years ago I mentioned in passing that this sort of exercise is usually a preemptive strike against litigation. If a college doesn't have some sort of formal anti-harassment hoop it makes new hires jump through, and a new hire creates a hostile environment for somebody else, then that somebody else is in a stronger legal position than if there were some sort of hoop.

That's true, as far as it goes, but I'd add a few more considerations now.

Sometimes, it's a response to a case that actually happened. In the wake of a muddy case, I've seen colleges (and businesses) adopt measures like these as a sort of ritual penance. When that happens, the effectiveness of the program really isn't the point; going through it is the point. "Further, to ensure that any such misunderstandings do not occur in the future, the college agrees to..." While controlling every future act (and interpretation of every act) of every employee is obviously impossible, mandating workshops, quizzes, and videos is both possible and measurable. If something happens later, the employer can defend itself with "we took pro-active measures, including x hours of workshops and a quiz administered to every employee."

There's also the symbolic communication value. I'll assume that you're a decent person who treats others decently, and would do so even without a video and quiz. I'll also assume that you can read between the lines. While we all know that everyday life doesn't live up to the elevated speech of mission and vision statements, it's still possible to draw inferences from noticing what a given college chooses to highlight. By making a point of condemning harassment, the college is saying something. Incumbent employees who have experienced a felt climate of intimidation may welcome the gesture, even knowing that, by itself, it's unlikely to accomplish much. At the very least, it puts the college on record as making the issue important.

More subtly, it's usually the case that gestures like these aren't just stand-alone. They're parts of larger programs, often working to shift a long-ingrained culture. It's an annoying fact of life that measures like these are usually targeted at the people who didn't cause the problem, but so it goes.

Finally, there's the George Costanza defense. In an episode of Seinfeld, George was fired for having sex with the cleaning lady on his desk. He tried to defend himself by saying nobody told him he couldn't have sex with the cleaning lady on his desk, so how was he supposed to know? Putting new employees through workshops and quizzes can defuse the "I didn't know" defense, which can make disciplinary action easier. Yes, there's an element of "but what kind of idiot doesn't know that?" to it, but as a manager of people, I'll just say that you'd be surprised what some people consider obvious.

So I don't dispute that the videos can be kind of patronizing, and the hoops at hire can feel like wastes of time. That said, though, they serve larger purposes, even if they're largely ineffective on their own terms. And some of the larger purposes are worthy enough that I'd consider a bit of ritual worth the price.

Wise and worldly readers -- what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I'd be more concerned about the fact that this is unpaid time.
As a FT employee of the university, I go through one of these training videos (actually an online examination) once every two years. I don't like spending the time but accept that, contra the original query, there *are* people who don't know how to act. And that, for all the reasons that DD cites, this is concrete and tangible action to which the college can point as a response.

And I suspect that, again contra the original query, anybody who *has* been the object of harassment would hardly think such training was a waste of time.
I'm not sure the value of everybody's time is being respected. Would this still be a good idea if you had to find a corresponding amount of money in your budget?
We have to do these once a year at my college. I'm just grateful that it's an on-line video I can watch at a time of my choosing rather than a meat-space training session at a set time. It's crummy that it's unpaid time for you, but I would just suck it up as part of life in the 21st century workplaces.
Whatever you do, try not to adopt the disrespectful attitude displayed in this Slightly More Realistic Interpretation of my Company's Required Sexual Harassment Training Video and Dialogue
From a pragmatic standpoint, one should be able to pass the quiz without watching the video.
Anecdata, N=1.
If you are the sort of person who protests-loudly- that this is a waste of time, you are the person that needs it. If you are the only person in a history of an institution required to *retake* sensitivity training, you are a total jackhat.
I live in Illinois, where all state employees must study an ethics handbook and then take a quiz upon hire, including everyone from state university professors to DOT flagsmen -- except, of course, our fine elected officials. The whole thing is about not giving contracts to my friends or selling state offices and crap like that -- stuff that our elected officials, who passed the law that we all have to take this quiz, do, but they are exempted from it. (Literally one question on the whole quiz could have possibly applied to me; I am not allowed campaign for my preferred candidate on state time or using the state Xerox machine.)

Anyway, this was the big brouhaha where the professors took the quiz TOO FAST because their reading speed was too far above average, and so got reprimanded. ( )

HR tells us to open the quiz, answer the first question, let it sit there 15 minutes, and then finish up. It only cares that you take longer than 15 minutes, not how you split up your 15 minutes. AWESOME.

But yeah, it's all just ritualized ass-covering and part of the 21st-century workplace. Do it, do your quiz, and move on with your life. And, if you're me, appreciate the irony that the governor who pushed for these ethics reforms and bragged about passing them never had to take quiz and broke EVERY SINGLE RULE on the quiz.
want to comment on a tangent: "I'd be more concerned about the fact that this is unpaid time."

At my institution (and all the others at which I've been, including one at which I was, in fact, an adjunct), adjuncts are not paid by the hour. They are paid for the course. If a part of teaching the course is to have done some appropriate training, then that's a part of the gig. So it goes.
This comment has been removed by the author.
I'm also in Illinois and not only is the ethics training mandatory - we just got our notice for the statewide mandatory sexual harassment training today too. So, it may not be the HR of the college - it might be the state. Should they provide compensation (or write into your contract that your 10/20/whatever hours will include various trainings) yes. Is it likely to happen? Sadly, no.
When I was an adjunct, my former university required a similar training session. I had no problems with the training itself. I did, however, have a problem with doing the training without compensation for my time.
Any comment on this:
Can't comment on universities, but this is common practice in the research industry. When I returned to academia to get a PhD, I remained for over 18 months on the research industry's pay-roll. Over time, the work tapered off. One of the biggest factors for me pulling the plug were the online training modules (harassment - sexual and otherwise, ethics, workplace violence, you name it) that took about 2 hours of my life every month when I was only billing about 15 to a project. Full time employees had a training or overhead account to bill, but as an hourly, I did not. Yet the system literally would not let me sign off a time card unless I had completed the training. Oh, and because the company primarily employed over-educated people who were likely to skip through and just take the test, the modules were set up so you HAD to play each part.

I'm afraid it is just a reality of our current culture.
Hazmat training is way more intensive and not the best way I want to spend my time. I have a number of adjunct coworkers that can use a sexual harassment training session. They are so clueless. Many of the guys are retired and worked in the Mad Men era. Unfortunately, my campus only passes out a brochure, which I am sure most of them toss out.
The local university where I have served as an adjunct requires all new adjuncts to attend a one hour session with the university's attorney, who goes over all of the current sexual harassment law and what behaviors can get you into trouble. I felt like an hour of my time was not too much to ask to prevent harassment suits at the university and at myself.
Eyebrows McGee, I too am in Illinois, and formerly employed by a state university. Had to take the ethics exam while there, and my wife (working at the same place) still has to take it annually. The running joke in our house when Gov. Unethical was arrested (and then impeached and removed from office) was that my spouse would now have to take a five-or-six hour-long ethics exam; after all, it just seems that the legislature goes hog-wild on creating or expanding ethics exams for lowly state employees every time one of our governors gets indicted for a bunch of felonies. I love living in this state! What a ride!
Having just gone through one of these "respect others" training sessions (in a group, not via video), I'd like to make the observation that even for those of us who consider ourselves respectful, there are still things one can learn at these events. In our case, one of the facilitator's questions was about how uncomfortable each of us would feel hearing a sexual joke vs. hearing a racial joke by having us stand in various locations depending on our comfort level. The difference was striking: nearly everyone landed on the "uncomfortable" zone for racial jokes, but there was a wide range for sexual jokes. The message to me was that while a pretty strong "bright line" has emerged, at least within this institution, regarding things that MIGHT be interpreted as racist, things are much fuzzier with things that MIGHT be regarded as sexist. I had not realized, until seeing this in action at this event, just how wide the variation in responses is. And the point the facilitator made was that you therefore have to be very careful assuming that your own assessment of how sexist a statement or joke is will be shared by those hearing it, even if you think you know them well (this group was all co-workers from my department.)

That, at least for me, was something of value that I took from that training.

So my point is that, when done well, I think that such training can be more than just a lot of bureaucratic CYA that doesn't really matter practically.
Anon 8:45 --

I'm a (very) minor elected official these days, and we don't have to do a lick of ethics testing or training. You're elected, so it's not like they can fire you.

My position does have ethics materials and trainings AVAILABLE, and I've taken advantage of them, but if you're elected and actually have any power to commit these unethical actions the state is so concerned about ... no required training. But adjunct professors? Yeah, at $1500/class they might be SELLING STATE CONTRACTS TO RELATIVES WHO DONATED TO THEIR, um ... xerox fund?
I think those courses are a waste of time. But, I would absolutely require everyone (especially someone who teaches young people!) to watch the darn things. Why? Because I can say, "Look, you knew better. Out the door with you." There's none of that messy, "but I didn't know I couldn't..."

Lawyers caused all of this. Go complain to a lawyer.
My colleague (in Illinois) was just subject to an investigation that led him to resign. He passed the "test" every year and yet knew and admitted that he had trouble in real life with boundaries. He once told me a joke, the punchline of which was "Your wife has a smelly cunt" and then asked if he had crossed the line. Turns out-- he had a file running back 10 years with numerous complaints throughout. Yes, he had tenure. And the Old Boy network kept excusing him on the basis of "He knows not what he does." The online test is a legal gesture at best. But then that's what the State needs at the end of the day. Accountability is a different matter.
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