By Carolina Avellaneda
Sexual harassment claims are an equal opportunity hazard. Employees are as likely to file them against big companies as they are against start-ups. Restaurants, banks, nursing homes, law firms, retail shops, schools, towns and cities, not for profit and big profit— they have all been in the news facing sexual harassment lawsuits. Because sexual harassment claims do not discriminate, the debate on whether “to train or not to train” is germane to anyone who has employees.
Some states, like California and Connecticut, have taken the guesswork out of the question by mandating sexual harassment training by certain employers. For the rest of us, however, the debate continues as companies struggle with balancing the benefits with the risks and costs of providing sexual harassment training.
What are the benefits of offering sexual harassment training to company employees?
- Legal protection. Perhaps most important, the training, along with other reasonable internal policies geared at preventing and quickly responding to sexual harassment complaints, provides a company with a defense to claim for sexual harassment under Title VII and a way to ensure that no punitive damages will be found. Thus, whether or not training actually works to prevent sexual harassment, it generates a legal benefit that is otherwise unavailable.
- Creating a good environment. Training of employees educates the workforce on what is and what is not acceptable behavior in the workplace. While it is unlikely that this type of training alone, especially if it is an infrequent event in an otherwise inhospitable environment, will convert the worst perpetrators into saints, it can lay a foundation for the right atmosphere. During the training, employees also learn informal ways in which they can prevent and stop harassment before it escalates. They learn how not to be part of the problem and how to help forge solutions to potential problems. Good training helps employees be realistic about what is unlawful conduct and helps companies learn about real problems before lawyers become involved.
- Getting management involved. With respect to supervisors, the benefits are even more substantial. The acts of supervisors can create automatic liability for a company. As a result, companies should consider training supervisors their first line of defense in protecting the company from complaints of sexual harassment. Teaching supervisors how to recognize instances of sexual and other unlawful harassment prepares them to detect the behavior in the workplace. The training also arms supervisors with tools to respond when they observe inappropriate conduct and report the problem behavior. A quick response to unlawful harassment is pivotal to preventing complaints of sexual harassment from escalating to courts or administrative agencies. Moreover, in the course of training, supervisors become aware that because many state’s civil rights laws provide for individual liability, their pocketbooks are also at stake, which does wonders to improve the ability of supervisors to understand, internalize, and act on the material presented at training.
- Clarification of organizational roles and procedures. The company as a whole also benefits as well. In preparation for the sexual harassment prevention training, companies often have to take a close look at their organizational structure to determine who the supervisors are whose actions will be attributed directly to the company. In the course of determining who the supervisors are within the company structure, the company actually takes an active role in defining and clarifying job descriptions and positions that can be helpful in a myriad of other employment law minefields, such as wage and hours issues. Also, in the process of providing the training, companies are forced to take a better look at their own internal procedures for handling a complaint and investigations. The benefit from this is obvious.
Ensuring the effectiveness of sexual harassment training
How do companies make sure that their training will net them all of these potential benefits? To be really effective, training must take place from the top down. Every individual in the company, including senior executives, should receive sexual harassment prevention training. Second, training should be treated as a top priority by the organization. Employees must understand that the organization takes sexual harassment prevention training seriously by making the training mandatory, subjecting all employees including executives to training, and by providing a substantive training experience (two hours being the optimum). Finally, the training should be geared to the organization’s structure and business.
About the Author(s)
Carolina Avellaneda, a partner in the Boston office of McCarter & English, practices labor and employment law.