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A Look At Workplace Policies Meant To Prevent Sexual Harassment


Will anything change in the workplace as a result of all these revelations of sexual harassment? We posed that question to Amy Oppenheimer. She's a lawyer and investigator based in Berkeley, Calif., who specializes in preventing and responding to harassment and discrimination. We began our discussion by talking about what she would have expected to change since the Supreme Court mandated nearly 20 years ago that every sexual harassment allegation must be investigated.

AMY OPPENHEIMER: You wouldn't expect to see the level of sexual harassment and sexual assault and abuse that is still prevalent. And I think that when you're talking about matters of gender issues and sexual issues, they're much harder to get at when you combine it with power, that obviously the law isn't enough, that people really do need to stand up and behave differently and make sure that the people around them are behaving differently.

SIEGEL: Many companies use online video training for their employees. Are those effective ways to educate employees about what is and what is not appropriate at the workplace?

OPPENHEIMER: Well, online training is not usually very interactive. Occasionally I've seen good online training, but most of it is not great. And there's an open question as to whether training really is effective and what training, something that the Department of Fair Employment and Housing in California is looking at now through a task force I'm working with - is the efficacy of training. We've had it mandated in California for over 10 years, and we're not sure how well it works.

SIEGEL: I'm assuming that by working, what we mean is it makes sexual harassment less likely. I guess another measure of its working is it protects the employer from being held liable for any sexual harassment that takes place. They could say, hey, we have training; we have videos; everyone had to answer 30 questions about this.

OPPENHEIMER: Well, I think of working as that people feel that they can complain and they know what to complain about and that their complaints will be taken seriously. And so obviously the training doesn't mean that the complaints are taken seriously necessarily. But there's always going to be people who misbehave. The question is, how do employers respond to it? And do employees feel that they can speak up? What's more important than training is what kind of role models there are, what kind of action is actually taken when people do speak up.

SIEGEL: Can there be rules that eradicate sexual harassment in the workplace when, as you've said, this also involves power - power relationships between senior people who are more powerful than the junior people who might be worried that if they report a case of harassment, their careers will suffer for it?

OPPENHEIMER: Yeah. I mean you just pointed out a really important issue, which is a lot of the people who are abusing the rules are people who do have more power than those who are enforcing them. And if you don't have people who are enforcing them who have more power, then inevitably you're not going to have the kind of change that we would want to see.

SIEGEL: In all of the waves of stories that we've been hearing and seeing and reading over the past few weeks, are there things that have greatly surprised you, or is this what you do every week and what you encounter in your work all the time?

OPPENHEIMER: I think really what has surprised me most is that so many voices now are speaking up about it. It is hopeful that that could lead to a real change. I think that we know that there are serious harassment and sexual assault situations with very powerful men that go on that we don't hear about. And suddenly people are talking about it, and that really could mean that the future might look a little different.

SIEGEL: Amy Oppenheimer, thank you very much for talking with us today.

OPPENHEIMER: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: Amy Oppenheimer is an employment lawyer and investigator. She's based in Berkeley, Calif., and spoke to us from Clovis, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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