Click to comply: the dangers of online workplace training courses

It’s vital we ensure our workplaces are safe, fair and welcoming, but compulsory online training courses can fool us into a false sense of security, says Robert P Crease

Not a true test Online video training courses can delude us into thinking we know how to handle complex work situations. (Courtesy: iStock/millan)

“Think of it as professional preparation,” says Kath, a human-resources administrator at an unnamed university in the US, as she starts a video on her laptop. The video is part of an exercise to train staff in a theatre-studies department in how to defend against and possibly disarm someone who invades the premises with a gun.

As the department is under threat by a university keen to focus more on science, every staff member has to complete the training by the end of the day. If they don’t all pass the course, the school will be decertified and shut down. “My job is to teach you to fulfil your responsibility as educators,” Kath warns.

The scene I am describing is not real, but appears in Preparedness, a play I saw a few months ago. Written by Hillary Miller, a professor of English at Queens College in New York, it conveys both the deadly seriousness of such attacks, which have occurred all too often in the US, and the ludicrous idea that video training courses can equip people to defend themselves against these shootings.

The play made me squirm, for as a university administrator myself, I require faculty to take online training sessions, and have to take them myself. Don’t get me wrong: such sessions can be useful and effective, especially when teaching, say, computer security, data privacy and health protection. In fact, they can be demanding, often lasting an hour and being split into chunks so you can’t skip ahead. There are also quizzes you need to achieve full marks in so you can’t doze off or multi-task.

Some training sessions are not effective in this format, especially those that aim to help people deal sensitively with delicate or volatile issues, such as racial animosity, sexual harassment or suicidal behaviour.

But other training sessions are not effective in this format, especially those that aim to help people deal sensitively with delicate or volatile issues, such as racial animosity, sexual harassment or suicidal behaviour. The idea that online video training can certify a person’s ability to cope with incidents arising from such complex matters is disturbing and laughable.

Preparedness captures what is alarming and amusing about such courses. After Kath starts her video, it doesn’t have the desired educational effect but simply makes faculty members laugh. Annoyed, Kath plays a recording of gunshots in the background to simulate “immersion”.

The attendees complain they’re not being trained but “manipulated” and “violated”. They are incredulous that Kath thinks that she can teach them their “responsibility as educators”. Kath then accuses them of “tweezing” – slang for fussily picking apart and ridiculing something serious.

A complex affair

Let me be clear. I fully support the aim of these sessions and am not criticizing them as some kind of grumpy and reactionary technophobe. We all want our places of work to be diverse, kind, caring, hate-free, tolerant and safe. I only object to the means used, which run counter to what they aspire to achieve. For such training sessions can foster the kind of cluelessness and mockery that they mean to dispel. They aim to raise consciousness but actually undermine it by providing a false sense of safety and enlightenment. Click to comply!

Are these training sessions based on empirical studies of preparedness or on some fantasy about what it takes? Are they more dangerous than no training because they provide the delusion that everyone who has passed them knows what to do and how to behave responsibly? Are they, in other words, just a giant exercise in box-ticking?

At Stony Brook University, where I work, one of the questions in a training session about harassment asks who might be affected by it. Eight different groups are listed, but there’s no point even trying to think carefully which to pick, for the only way you can continue through the training is to tick all eight categories. Omit one and you’ve already failed – and have to start all over again.

A few days after I finished the harassment training, a faculty member e-mailed me in exasperation. He’d got as far as a module on “revenge porn” and knew the right answer but after three attempts to take the course, he couldn’t click to proceed further due to a software glitch, and each time had to restart the hour-long course from the beginning.

I told him to do it again; the training was mandatory. A day later he e-mailed me back, this time annoyed not just about his inability to get through it, and his lost time, but of its perceived necessity. He had, after all, been teaching moral philosophy for half a century, and he regarded that as a more competent way to judge the ethics of social situations.

He denounced such training courses as “morally and professionally offensive” because they don’t allow people to think for themselves or recognize that some staff members already take creating an equitable workplace as their professional duty. I had to rescue my almost-decertified colleague by pleading with administrators that he was of excellent character.

But I’m tweezing. I’m not fulfilling my responsibility as an educator. Those sessions are required and I must enforce them without pushback.

The critical point

I laughed all the way through Preparedness until the last scene. In it, the retiring theatre professor – the most talented and inspiring of the bunch – addresses her students after witnessing their final student performance of Sophocles’ Electra, in which the protagonist seeks revenge for her father’s brutal murder.

She’s annoyed and upset that her students are merely reciting the accepted words expected from suffering individuals, rather than truly responding to the turbulent, emotionally charged and morally ambiguous events in which Electra was implicated.

We don’t need box-ticking exercises where there’s only one right answer, no room for debate and no thinking for oneself.

That final scene made me think about what it would take to respond to such events authentically. Certainly not box-ticking exercises where there’s only one right answer, no room for debate and no thinking for oneself. Certainly not the conviction that people who pass a training course on a computer are deemed competent and do not need to work further on it.

Preparedness requires each of us continually to stay alert, be discerning and act responsibly. It requires living, not clicking.