Why You Should Provide Harassment and Discrimination Training

July 12, 2016

Gathering your employees together in order to provide them with harassment and discrimination training will cost you money and takes your employees away from their work.  So, is it really worth it?  Yes! Harassment and discrimination training is an investment in your employees and your company and reduces risks associated with litigation and high punitive damages.

 

1. Training is one of the most effective ways to communicate company policies and check for understanding.

 

Having written harassment and discrimination policies is critical, but there is really no way to know if your employees read the policies or understood them.  Plus, there is only so much you can include in a written policy.  Training provides a company with an opportunity to educate its employees concerning its policies, its expectations and its culture.  And it provides employees with an opportunity to ask questions and obtain clarity.  It also allows discussion on examples of situations that employees may come across.    

 

Effective training will teach your employees what harassment and discrimination are, how to avoid engaging in behavior that could be deemed harassing or discriminating, and what to do if they see or hear about harassment or discrimination occurring. Training will also teach supervisors about their responsibilities with respect to preventing, eliminating and handling issues of harassment and discrimination.

 

2. Training demonstrates your commitment to an environment of respect and inclusion.

 

Writing a policy that says you prohibit harassment and discrimination is easy.  Actually creating a culture of respect and inclusion is more difficult.  Taking a break from the typical work day to provide training is one way to demonstrate to your employees that you take these issues seriously.  And training is where you can discuss what these terms mean to you and to them. 

 

Training gives you an opportunity to express your zero tolerance policy and inform employees of the consequences of bad behavior. Training also lets your employees know that it’s ok to come forward with a concern if they have one, and how to do so. And while you may view more employee complaints as a negative, it’s always better to know when an employee has a concern so that it can be promptly addressed.

 

3. Training clarifies complicated issues.

 

Harassment and discrimination issues come in many shades of grey.  Training provides an opportunity to discuss and clarify these grey issues.  For instance, employees often don’t realize that what they do or say after hours at a bar or on their social media pages can lead to disciplinary action at work.  Or that shunning a co-worker who has complained can be viewed as retaliation.  Training allows for discussion, questions, and even role-plays where appropriate. Training also gives supervisors confidence to handle sticky situations, like when an employee complains about harassment but says they don’t want anyone else to know.

 

4. In the event of litigation, training can support an affirmative defense and limit damages.

 

The goal of training is to avoid situations that will lead to litigation.  But, of course, claims against a company may still arise.  A company that has provided its employees with harassment and discrimination training and taken its obligation to prevent and promptly correct such issues seriously will be in a much stronger position to defend against any harassment or discrimination claim.

 

Generally, employers are subject to vicarious liability for unlawful harassment or discrimination engaged in by supervisors.  However, where a supervisor’s acts do not result in a tangible employment action (e.g., termination), an employer may be able to avoid liability under federal and New York State law by establishing an affirmative defense (known as the Faragher Ellerth Affirmative Defense) that includes two necessary elements:

  • the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any harassing behavior, and

  • the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise.

Training is a preventative measure that employers can point to in support of the first prong of the Defense.   For New York City employers, it is important to note that this defense does not apply to claims brought under City Law, making prevention of such claims even more critical. However, even where an employer cannot avoid liability altogether, proof of a training program can be effective to limit or eliminate punitive damages.

 

5. Training is an investment in the future of your company.

 

Incidents of harassment and discrimination are detrimental to a work-force in many ways.   They can lead to low morale, lost productivity, and turn-over of valued employees, all before anyone even considers calling a lawyer.  While training has an initial monetary and time cost, effective training will save a company time and money in the long run by helping employees to prevent, identify and correct potential problems before they blow up into major issues. 

 

Because companies are deemed responsible for the acts of their supervisors and because supervisors are often the first line of defense against any improper behavior, if training all employees isn’t in your budget, providing supervisor training is still highly recommended.

 

Have a comment or question?  Email me at sarakula.com

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