Saturday, June 16, 2012

FEAR and Loathing

One of the developments in the [redacted] years since I started at my agency is the increasing number of required annual or biannual training sessions. Every year everyone has to take computer security training or risk losing network access. There's some sort of sexual harassment training (not as much of a "how to" as one might think from the name). There was the (thankfully never repeated) Clinton-era AIDS awareness training, in which middle-aged bureaucrats were subjected to an enthusiastic young lady showing how to put a condom on a banana and discussing the use of plastic wrap during oral...activities. There's the annual ethics training - yes, government ethics; feel free to laugh - that, thank goodness, is in person only every third year.

I took the biannual "NO FEAR" training today. This waste of time followed from a 2002 law (that stemmed, bizarrely, from a discrimination lawsuit against the EPA that the plaintiff won - why was another law needed?) prohibiting retaliation against whistleblowers in the government. We have to sit through an 80-minute narrated slideshow that presents various discriminatory scenarios, discusses the applicable law, segues into whistleblower protections, and gives little quizzes along the way. What I got out of it was
  • anything is sexual harassment if an employee feels harassed
  • third parties can be harassed (e.g., by witnessing behavior that makes the third party uncomfortable), even if the recipient of the behavior is not offended
  • supervisors can be responsible for behavior for which they are unaware.

What kind of a world is this? How are people supposed to interact when there are no objective standards for liability? The whole thing creates perverse incentives. For example, do these types of laws discourage employers from hiring people in protected classes - that is, why hire the first Muslim, or the first person with a disability, in the office, lest the employer find himself or herself on the receiving end of a lawsuit later on?

As a result of my training, I'm now afraid to speak with
  • men
  • women
  • homosexuals
  • heterosexuals
  • non-whites
  • whites.
Of course, I'm also afraid to not speak to those groups, as silence can also be construed as discriminatory. Orwell would merely nod his head in understanding.

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