The New York City Council is considering what the New York Times describes as “a raft of legislation” to address sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace, including a requirement that all businesses with at least 15 employees conduct sexual harassment prevention training:
Much of the legislation, called the Stop Sexual Harassment in New York City Act, is focused on addressing instances of sexual misconduct that may go unreported, particularly within city agencies. Several of the bills create reporting requirements for city contractors or agencies. One bill would create a system for surveying agencies to prompt anonymous disclosure of potential problems to try to prevent harassment.
Private employers would also be required to display a poster with practical examples of sexual harassment, as well as a way to contact city, state or federal authorities with complaints.
If the legislation passes, New York City will become one of only a few jurisdictions where private employers are required to provide this training. California and Connecticut require that organizations with at least 50 employees provide training to supervisors, while Maine requires organizations of at least 15 people to train all employees, plus additional training for supervisors. Some states have sexual harassment training requirements for public sector employees or educators, while others encourage but don’t mandate it for private employers, and still others take the presence of such training into account in judging whether an employer was negligent in a sexual harassment case.
With sexual harassment looming large in the public eye, legislators in many cities and states are considering ways to use their authority to more effectively combat and prevent it, as indeed are many employers. At the start of 2018, new laws went into effect expanding the scope of mandatory training in California to cover harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and mandating sexual harassment training for lobbyists in Illinois. That state also directed its Department of Human Rights to establish and maintain a sexual harassment hotline for workers in the state to confidentially report harassment and access resources such as counseling and advice on how to file a formal complaint.
The New York City legislation is a further indicator of which way the wind is blowing. New York also recently amended its sick leave law to allow employees to use statutory paid leave to address issues of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Training employees to refrain from and prevent sexual harassment in the workplace is a necessary step toward addressing this insidious problem, but it may not be a panacea. Critics of sexual harassment training have noted that it often focuses on limiting the employer’s liability when sexual harassment does occur rather than preventing it from occurring or protecting victims. Some research has even suggested that training can backfire by making men less likely to recognize inappropriate behavior at work and more likely to discount allegations.