Harassment Training Goes Beyond Supervisors

By Joanne Deschenaux Apr 10, 2007

A survey of more than 1,500 HR and legal professionals revealed that 50 percent of employers provide harassment training to all employees, not just supervisors.

The poll was conducted by ELT Inc., a provider of online training with content from Littler Mendelson. Participants were polled live during webcasts from July 20, 2006, to Nov. 30, 2006, on harassment training.

Harassment training has been strongly encouraged for years under federal law, noted Shanti Atkins, president and chief executive officer of ELT. A 2004 California law, AB 1825, made training of supervisors mandatory in the state and represents the training “tipping point,” she said. Employers required to train all of their California supervisors are taking the opportunity to train throughout their organizations, she told HR News.

Not Just for Supervisors

Although AB 1825 requires training only for supervisors, under California law, all employees need to prevent harassment, Atkins remarked.

For an employer to establish an effective defense to a harassment lawsuit, the employer should be able to show that all employees were made aware of its anti-harassment policy, she explained.

“Saying that you trained managers is not enough. Employees need to understand what harassment is under the organization’s policy,” Atkins said. She recommended that all employees be trained on what to do when they see harassment, whether they are victims or bystanders.

She also noted, however, that training for employees is usually shorter, with less content than that for supervisors.

‘Lawsuit Insurance’

One of employers’ main concerns regarding harassment is the possibility of class action lawsuits, according to Atkins. Under federal law, even if a company is found liable for classwide harassment, the amount of damages awarded may be significantly lower if training has been provided, she said.

For employers, instituting mandatory harassment training results in a better workplace, but it also can operate like “lawsuit insurance,” Atkins remarked. “If you don’t do training, it’s like operating without insurance. It goes beyond a ‘best practice.’ It’s a big mistake for employers to say something is a best practice, but then decide it’s a luxury they can’t afford.”

Quality of Training

Simply providing harassment training isn’t enough, Atkins cautioned. “Now the questions go to the quality of the training.”

Sixty-five percent of survey respondents said some element of quality training—the provider’s legal expertise, quality and “look and feel” of the program, or required interactivity—were the most important aspect of training. Only 9 percent cited cost as most important, and 26 percent ranked speed and ease of implementation as number one.

Eighty-six percent of respondents’ harassment training goes beyond sexual harassment, to cover other protected categories such as race, religion, age and disability.

This is as it should be, Atkins observed, because sexual harassment is just one form of prohibited harassment.

“Training outside of sexual harassment is just common sense,” she said. Federal law provides an impetus for training on multiple protected categories. And while AB 1825 is titled a “Sexual Harassment Training” law, the actual text of the statute makes clear that other forms of harassment can be covered.

AB 1825 Draft Regulations Revisited

But in California, the standards for who is qualified to provide training still are being hammered out in further changes to draft AB 1825 regulations.

On March 27, California’s Fair Employment & Housing Commission met to consider more revisions to its draft AB 1825 regulations. The commission focused on providing more clarity about the required qualifications of those who create and/or present sexual harassment training programs, whether live or online.

The Feb. 27 version of the regulations had distinguished between “subject matter experts” (those with extensive knowledge of harassment law) and “trainers” (those who actually present the training sessions). The current draft eliminates “subject matter experts” entirely and moves the relevant qualifications to its definition of “trainer.”

In the latest draft regulations, a qualified trainer can be an attorney admitted for two or more years to the bar of any state, whose practice includes employment law, or an HR professional with two or more years of practical experience in handling harassment complaints or advising about harassment prevention. The draft also provide, however, that individuals who do not meet the expertise criteria may “team teach with a trainer in classroom or webinar trainings provided that the trainer supervises these individuals and the trainer is available throughout the training to answer questions from training attendees.”

Despite the many revisions to the draft regulations, Atkins recommended that HR professionals continue to pay attention to them. They represent good instructional design, she said, and the planning of harassment training should be an ongoing process, not a one-time event.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is senior legal editor for HR News.

Related Article:

Changes Proposed to New California Harassment Training Regulations, HR News, March 6, 2007

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