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.