When Bureaucrats Rule Sex

At Boise State, it's an academic exercise


Lock the door. Bring out the candles. Dim the lights. Cue up the Luther Vandross. If we're doing this at home, we can pour ourselves some slightly chilled Chardonnay. Oh baby, it's time. Let's do this sitting up. I promise, it'll rock your world. And if we do it in Cascade, we might just feel the Earth move.

Let's do it--let's boot up and plunge into the mandatory computer-based Idaho Department of Human Resources Sexual Harassment training program. It'll only take an hour, and it's supposed to be virus-protected. Since we're employees of Boise State, we're among the first in the state in line for this experience. If it gets weird or uncomfortable, just close your eyes and think about Bill Gates.

So why are we, and soon all other state employees, required to do this? The state realizes that the average cost to settle an employment law claim exceeds $300,000; jury verdicts for harassment claims can easily exceed $1 million. Likewise, class action harassment lawsuits have toasted Wonderbread to the tune of $131 million and given Mitsubishi's corporate coffers a $34 million overhaul. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the training of managers and employees offers an affirmative defense to these harassment claims. And according to the attractive Amanda Horton, one of Boise State's staff attorneys, the university has already been sued for harassment and settled, thought she would not reveal how often and for how much.

Handsome sociology professor Steve Patrick, Ph.D., who objects to the "cheap and easy" quality of the training, still admits, "Probably 10 percent of people on campus need this training." In particular, he cites "the high number of undergraduates--both male and female--who have been subjected to sexual inappropriateness or violence even before they come to us as students."

But from the employee perspective, Holly Borden, the comely director of Boise State's Office of Affirmative Action, has all the FAQs to get us in the mood--including the popular non-question: "The quality of the training is poor and insults my intelligence."

Borden replies, "Contracting for the development and delivery of this kind of training would cost the University approximately $30,000 to $40,000 ...While we recognize that any training geared to a broad base of participants must necessarily be presented at an educational level that might be below that of some, we would hope that this factor would be understood and accepted by those who might otherwise be insulted."

That's why the top solons at Boise State decided to go with a two-sizes-fit-all computer training modules: one for supervisors, the other for employees.

eKnowledge Inc., out of Corona, California, is the chosen supplier for these programs. Founded in 1998, the company provides a wide variety of computer and video-based training, with subjects ranging from how to do well on the ACTs and SATS, to a course in Hawaiian Lomi massage, which the State of Idaho has probably not purchased for its managers or employees. Dapper Marketing Director Brandon Chatham explains the anti-sexual harassment program was first developed in consultation with the expressed needs of city governments and has been satiating public and private sector desires ever since.  

"The program is well-liked," says Chatham. "Provo [Brigham Young University] loved our program so much, they asked us 'When are you coming out with other sectors'?"

Since Boise State has already placed links to the program on every staff and faculty member's computer, we're just a few clicks of the mouse away. But be warned: There'll be no training interruptus. Quitting halfway entails starting all over again, and neither the fast forward or rewind buttons work.

Both modules start with an emphatic "dum, dum, DUM!" of upbeat elevator music and the appearance of a handsome but anonymous Mr. Talking Head, a young guy with a neck literally the same width as his skull. In sexual matters, Boise State's version of Big Brother looks like Little Frat Boy Brother, only wearing a nice, thick tie. Mr. Talking Head narrates the entire manager's program, while the rank and file employees get stuck with Ms. Whiny Voice, sprouting a Medusa-inspired hairdo and a neck that could benefit from some chiropractic work.

Mr. Talking Head explains to his audience that "harassment" only refers to objectionable speech, messages or actions against certain "protected categories" such as "sex, race, color, religion, national origin, age, veteran status, and disability." Here in Idaho, comments about weight or sexual orientation fall outside the protected boundaries. Ms. Whiny Voice contributes to the lesson by admitting that calling someone "a dumbass or shithead" is acceptable, while referring to an employee or co-worker as a "girl, doll, babe, hunk, stud or honey" is verboten.

Both underscore that "sexually related conduct simply does not belong in the workplace at all."  That means no off-color jokes, no after-hours dates, no "looking a person up and down," no nudie or Chippendales calendars, no "touching oneself with sexual overtones," no standing too close to someone or blocking their path, and no flirtatious comments on someone's personal appearance or dress. 

But co-workers can still ask each other out on dates--and that's a good thing, because according to the test questions and examples, the workplace is a hotbed of unstrestrained libido.

However, the end isn't nearly so exciting, since no one can possibly fail the required multiple-choice exam. If you don't pick the one correct answer out of three, Mr. Talking Head or Ms. Whiny Voice will gently scold and give you as many more chances as you need.

So, was it good for you?  How about sharing a cigarette? Oh damn, that's right--the university wants to ban smoking from the campus as well as flirting.  But hey, according to the attractive Holly Borden, we can expect a training video to come out as well! A state employee can only hope.