Skip top navigation Skip to content

Print   Email  Share

Select Task Force Meeting of June 15, 2015 - Workplace Harassment: Examining the Scope of the Problem and Potential Solutions 

Written Testimony of Eden King, Associate Professor of Psychology, George Mason University

Good morning and thank you for the invitation to speak with you about my work. My name is Eden King, and I am an Associate Professor of Psychology at George Mason University and proud member of the Society for Industrial Organizational Psychology. In collaboration with students and colleagues over the past 15 years, I have conducted scientific research that seeks to understand and improve the workplace experiences of people from devalued or stigmatized groups. This has yielded roughly 100 scholarly publications on the experiences of women, mothers, pregnant workers, gay and lesbian people, religious minorities, and both older and younger workers. This work has involved a range of methodological approaches including large-scale surveys, carefully controlled laboratory experiments, meta-analyses, and experiments in the field.

Like Dr. Cortina and Dr. Bergman, I would like to highlight that I am a psychologist and thus I will speak about the organizational-rather than legal-implications of the social science findings I present. I would also like to note that my scholarship largely concerns a phenomenon labeled "interpersonal discrimination" rather than "harassment" per se. In my view, these terms are highly interrelated. Like harassment, interpersonal discrimination involves behaviors that degrade, minimize, or disrespect people on the basis of their social group membership. Unlike harassment, interpersonal discrimination can also include behaviors that seem positive but that nonetheless undermine its targets, such as statements about being "smart for a [Black/Hispanic/Old] person" or decisions to give international assignments to a man rather than a mother so that she can spend time with her children. The drivers and consequences of harassment and the negative forms of interpersonal discrimination are quite similar, and so my discussion here focuses on issues that generalize to both.

Dr. Cortina and Dr. Bergman described evidence regarding the prevalence of harassment and discrimination, as well as the factors that drive and follow its experience. My testimony will instead focus on the question of how to change these experiences. In so doing, I will address the task force's question, "Are there evidence based studies that show that particular interventions do [or do not] work?" Within this context, I will also describe the ways that allies or bystanders might be engaged.

Existing Interventions are Training Programs

At a broad level, scholars have given substantial thought to the conditions under which discrimination and harassment can be avoided. Yet, the more practical focus of this work is remarkably narrow and is largely focused on examining the effectiveness of training programs.

This focus is aligned with EEOC guidance and the practical reality that the most common anti-harassment practice is harassment/diversity training. Indeed, surveys of human resource practitioners conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management suggest that approximately 2/3rds of companies are engaging in some sort of educational efforts related to diversity and harassment. This is up from about 1/3 in the early 1990s. Given this practical and scholarly focus, I will next describe what we know and what we don't know about effective training.

What We Know about Anti-Harassment and Diversity Training

Diversity and anti-harassment training or education programs have the opportunity to influence trainees' knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors related to the training and related to people from diverse social backgrounds. A recent synthesis of 65 separate studies on anti-harassment and diversity training published before 2011 by researchers at Wright State University[1] shows that:

  • Training was modestly effective in increasing diversity-related knowledge and skills and less effective in changing attitudes. (It is noteworthy that most studies focused on the positivity of reactions to training or knowledge acquired; only 6 studies considered actual on-the-job behaviors such as discrimination and harassment.)
  • Importantly, the effectiveness of training varied meaningfully across its elements. Training was most likely to have positive effects when it:
    • lasted more than 4 hours
    • was conducted in a face-to-face environment (rather than via a computer)
    • included active participation with other trainees on interdependent tasks
    • and when the trainer was a supervisor or external expert rather than an internal staff member (e.g., an HR official)

Some of the research that my students and I have conducted sheds additional insights about the conditions under which training might be more or less successful.

  • The "business case" itself doesn't seem to be sufficient to create change. That is, simply arguing that diversity or anti-harassment policies are good for an organization's bottom line is insufficient to improve attitudes, skills, or behavior. Rather, pairing business and social arguments may in fact be more successful.[2]
  • Training seems to have the most positive benefits among those trainees who need it the least (not the ones who are most biased). Unfortunately, the attitudes and behavior of individuals who are highly prejudiced are [most] resistant to programs that have been studied. For example, in my own research, we found that male undergraduates with higher levels of bias were less likely to benefit from a sexual harassment training intervention than those with lower predispositions toward bias. We are doing work now to identify strategies that appeal to these highly biased trainees in particular.[3]
  • There are, however, strategies through which standard diversity training programs might be enhanced. I have conducted a series of studies to examine these elements independently and can conclude that:
    • Demonstrating that trainees are themselves biased can build not only awareness but also motivation for training.
      • Trainees who learned about a phenomenon called the "bias blindspot" (i.e., the tendency for people to think that others are more biased than they are personally) reported higher levels of motivation for diversity training. That is, becoming aware of personal biases may cue trainees to be more attentive to training.[4]
      • It is important, however, that this awareness that all people have biases is paired with knowledge that most people are also trying to overcome their biases. Awareness alone may actually increase bias by making it seem normative.[5]
    • Goal setting can enhance training.
      • Trainees who set specific, challenging, and attainable goals about diversity are more likely to change their behaviors to meet their goals than those who do not set goals. Such goals might include attending LGBT supportive events or evaluating resumes without looking at names.
      • Trainees whose mentors also set goals about supporting the trainees are especially likely to change their behaviors. That is, direct support from supervisors or mentors can facilitate behavior change.
      • Diversity-related behavior change resulting from goal-setting might precede (and thus enable) attitude change. In our study, people enacted LGBT-supportive behavior six months after training and had improved attitudes toward LGBT people after nine months.[6]
    • Perspective taking can enhance training.
      • Trainees who literally spend a few minutes of training taking the perspective of a stigmatized coworker in a brief writing activity experience more empathy than those who do not take this perspective.
      • Increased empathy, then, improved relevant attitudes and behaviors.[7]
  • Separate research has emerged outside of the organizational diversity and anti-harassment literature on engaging individual allies or bystanders in confronting bias and discrimination. This work has (yet untested) implications for anti-harassment programs in organizations:
    • Bystanders, or people who are not directly targeted by discrimination and harassment, can be more effective in confronting prejudice than the targets themselves.[8]
    • The likelihood that an individual will confront harassment depends on their (a) recognition of an event as harassment/discrimination, (b) interpreting this as an emergency, (c) taking personal responsibility, (d) awareness of appropriate responses, and (e) deciding to act.[9] Interventions that target each and all of these factors are likely to be the most effective.

Together, this evidence is genuinely helpful in designing effective training programs. Yet, there are also numerous substantive questions that remain unanswered. Of most significance in my mind is the question of how training efforts are integrated within larger organizational systems, cultures, and diversity management programs.

What We Do Not Yet Know about Anti-Harassment and Diversity Training

There are compelling notions about the integration of such training programs within larger efforts toward inclusion. The basic idea is that training is more likely to be more effective if it is integrated within broader initiatives that span organizational systems (e.g., strategic diversity management programs). Unfortunately, there is little evidence to support this idea or how to accomplish it. We simply do not know how a range of diversity management programs and practices can be pieced together most effectively in a larger organizational system.

One important exception to this statement is the work of task force member Frank Dobbin with his colleagues Alexandra Kalev and Erin Kelly in 2006.[10]  Dobbin and his colleagues matched EEO-1 reports with organizational survey data to explore the effects of a range of policies and programs on the representation of women and racial minorities in managerial roles. Their results suggest that structures of responsibility such as Affirmative Action plans and formal staff devoted to diversity efforts (e.g., a Chief Diversity Officer) facilitate the promotions of women and racial minorities, whereas diversity education/training programs can actually have a negative impact.

We need additional studies that look at integrated systems of diversity programs across organizations as it relates not just to representation, but also to the interpersonal experiences, of diverse workers. To be clear, this is itself a practical problem: scholars are highly motivated to conduct this kind of work, but organizations and the attorneys who represent them are extremely reticent to allow us to study experiences of harassment and discrimination because of fears of the repercussions. Incentivizing, rather than penalizing companies who engage in evidence-based anti-harassment programs could push both science and practice forward.

In summary, organizations have responded to increasing diversity and persistent harassment by instituting training programs that are at best, modestly effective in increasing knowledge and skills that might be related to reduced harassment. Evidence points to practical strategies through which training can be enhanced, such as awareness, goal-setting, and perspective-taking modules, and involving supervisors directly in supporting trainees' transfer of knowledge and skills to their work groups. More evidence is needed to understand how to effectively integrate training programs in larger diversity management efforts.

Thank you for your attention and I welcome your questions.


[1] Kalinoski, Z. T., Steele-Johnson, D., Peyton, E. J., Leas, K. A., Steinke, J., & Bowling, N. A. (2013). A meta-analytic evaluation of diversity training outcomes. Journal of Organizational Behavior34(8), 1076-1104.

[2] Jones, K. P., King, E. B., Nelson, J., Geller, D. S., & Bowes-Sperry, L. (2013). Beyond the business case: An ethical perspective of diversity training. Human Resource Management52(1), 55-74.

[3] Kearney, L. K., Rochlen, A. B., & King, E. B. (2004). Male gender role conflict, sexual harassment tolerance, and the efficacy of a psychoeducative training program. Psychology of Men & Masculinity5(1), 72.

[4] Gulick, L., Jose, I., Peddie, C., King, E. B., & Kravitz, D. A. (April, 2009). Implications of the bias blind spot for trainee acceptance of diversity training. Paper presented at the annual conference of the Society for Industrial Organizational Psychology in New Orleans, LA.

[5] Duguid, M. M., & Thomas-Hunt, M. C. (2015). Condoning stereotyping? How awareness of stereotypes impacts expression of stereotypes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100, 343-359.

[6] Madera, J. M., King, E. B., & Hebl, M. R. (2013). Enhancing the effects of sexual orientation diversity training: The effects of setting goals and training mentors on attitudes and behaviors. Journal of Business and Psychology, 28(1), 79-91.

[7] Lindsey, A., King, E., Hebl, M., & Levine, N. (2014). The impact of method, motivation, and empathy on diversity training effectiveness. Journal of Business and Psychology, 1-13.

[8] Czopp, A. M., Monteith, M. J., & Mark, A. Y. (2006). Standing up for a change: reducing bias through interpersonal confrontation. Journal of personality and social psychology90(5), 784.

[9] Ashburn-Nardo, L., Morris, K. A., & Goodwin, S. A. (2008). The confronting prejudiced responses (CPR) model: Applying CPR in organizations. Academy of Management Learning & Education7(3), 332-342.

[10] Kalev, A., Dobbin, F., & Kelly, E. (2006). Best practices or best guesses? Assessing the efficacy of corporate affirmative action and diversity policies. American Sociological Review71(4), 589-617.