This semester my employer required me to take a training course on sexual and other illegal workplace harassment. USD didn’t adopt this policy by choice; California law requires it. Alas, the course, turned out to be an annoying piece of propaganda. Here’s what I (and untold thousands of other Californians) "learned":
1. White Guys Can Be Scary. The core situation in the computer training course is a tendentious incident in which a recently-promoted black, female bank employee named "Shani" receives anonymous e-mails from someone who purports to be her secret admirer. This escalates into a kind of stalking. Finally, the "secret admirer" takes a large photo of a naked pregnant woman with a headshot of Shani (who is herself pregnant) pasted on it and hangs it on her office door with the caption "pregnant and looking for love." Obviously, no one imagines that this is proper office decorum.
Who turns out to be the perpetrator? Can’t you guess? It’s the white guy who complained that he should have gotten Shani’s promotion. He earlier claimed that he was the victim of "reverse" race and sex discrimination, so he’s a scary guy. We’re told that his actions were calculated to frighten her into not returning to work after her upcoming pregnancy leave.
Okay, fine. No doubt white guys who complain that they are the victims of reverse discrimination do bad things sometimes, just as every other variety of humankind does bad things sometimes. And producers had to use some dramatic situation as its theme. But it’s needlessly insulting to its captive audience for it to portray the villain as a person who is unenthusiastic about the merits of affirmative action. No one else in the program is portrayed as anything more than a generic "employee."
Nevertheless, that alone would not have inspired me to write this blog entry. It gets worse ....
2. All Complaints Must be Treated Seriously. No jokes. No retaliation. This is a theme that the course returns to over and over again. A manager is REQUIRED to report any incident that might be interpreted as sexual, racial or any other kind of illegal harassment to the friendly bureaucrats who inhabit the "Human Resources Office." Hence, both Shani and her friend from another department had a duty to report the various incidents involving the "secret admirer"–the e-mails, the stalking, and the poster.
Another minor incident in the training course involves a women named "Ami" who is exasperated that a colleague of hers, "Wendy," has been complaining of being harassed on account of her obesity. Evidently, Wendy herself makes jokes about her weight. Ami says to her supervisor, "Hey, can I bend your ear for a minute? Is it safe? Are the Sensitivity Police out?" She then asks, "Look, can’t you get the [Human Resources Office] to drop this Wendy thing and let the rest of us get back to work? It’s really bringing down team morale, and people just aren’t laughing like they used to."
Course participants are instructed that Ami must be admonished. A good supervisor should [e]xplain that the organization expects all employees to act in a professional and respectful manner when dealing with each other." Participants are further instructed that "Ami should not make negative comments about the investigation, or about Wendy for making the complaint." Of particular importance is the so-called "No Retaliation" policy:
"Explain the no-retaliation policy. If Ami witnesses any retaliation against Wendy because of the current investigation, Ami should report it immediately–this includes ‘ribbing,’ teasing, or even giving the cold shoulder. Retaliation is strictly prohibited by law and the policy."
Got that? It’s not just that Wendy’s supervisor must not penalize her in her assignments or evaluation for making her complaint. It’s not just that nobody may tease her about it. Her colleagues may not even pay less attention to her socially than they did before. Absolutely no retaliation unless ....
3. Complaints Made by White Guys Don’t Count. Here Retaliation is Evidently Fine. The exception to the "take all complaints seriously" rule appears to be for white guys who complain that they are the victims of discrimination. When Shani first learns the identity of her "secret admirer," she tells the Human Resource bureaucrat:
"You know, I remember overhearing him saying something really offensive about how he was the victim of reverse discrimination when I got the job. Really out of line. I wonder if I would’ve reported it then ... (emphasis supplied, ellipsis in original)."
The Human Resources bureaucrat replied:
"That certainly would have been the right thing to do, and reporting it then might have enabled us to nip this in the bud earlier."
Huh? How can Shani, a bank manager, get away with pronouncing our villain’s complaint "really offensive" and "really out of line"? Isn’t our villain simply making a complaint that he has been mistreated by his employer under the laws of California and the United States of America? Doesn’t the no-retaliation policy apply to white guys complaining of discrimination too? Evidently not. The training program treats it as obvious that white guys are not supposed to complain about discrimination. Can anyone imagine that if the roles were reversed, and Shani had complained that she was discriminated against in the promotion as a black female, that anyone would have called her protests "really offensive" or "really out of line" with the training program's approval?
We’re later told that the villain has been fired and that his case is being referred to law enforcement for possible criminal prosecution as "cyber-stalking."
This is really over the top. The message the employee is supposed to carry away is clear: Anyone who complains about any kind of inappropriate harassment or discrimination in the workplace must be treated with kid gloves (even if the complaint is silly), unless the complainant is a white guy concerned about "reverse" discrimination, in which case he’s "really out of line" and his conduct is "really offensive."
It occurred to me that this training course is itself a rather blatant form of racial and sexual harassment. Employees taking the course are not so subtly being told, "Do not dream of complaining about race or sex discrimination if you are white or male. Your employer will consider you to be 'really out of line' and your conduct 'really offensive.' This may have an career shortening effect."
Update: In my original version of this post, I identified New Media Learning as the producer of the training course. I have since received an e-mail saying that I am mistaken about this. I am checking to get the right info.