June 20, 2016

Author:  Bobbi K. Dominick

Most companies are aware of their obligation to train employees about harassment in the workplace.  But a review of recent litigation cases shows that many employers still miss the mark.  Training is required to effectively prevent harassment, while recognizing that not all harassment can be prevented. A training program should not be simply a “check-the-box we have a training program” effort.  If we want to truly create a nearly harassment-free workplace, we must analyze what serves as effective training, and implement that in the workplace.  Here is a short checklist:

Train employees to recognize problem behaviors 

Presumably, if the goal is preventing behavior, the first element that must be included is helping supervisors and employees recognize inappropriate behavior.  Often, those who do not understand the impact of certain behaviors, or how the behavior is perceived, do not recognize the behavior as inappropriate.  This type of training seeks to have an effect on cognitive perception.  Research has shown that individuals who received this kind of training were more likely to recognize harassing behaviors.

Help employees recognize problem behaviors with respect to all protected classes

We are seeing a rise in inappropriate workplace behaviors towards other protected classes such as race, national origin, religion, etc.  Many employers began harassment prevention programs by focusing on sexual harassment.  While it is important to continue to include that, employers must seriously address the other types of harassment, which can be just as costly in terms of workplace morale, employee engagement, and legal defense costs. 

Make sure employees know of leadership support for a harassment-free workplace

Another goal is to help employees understand the organization’s policies on the subject matter.  This type of communicative training program can only be effective if it is tied into the communication of shared values and vision, in addition to communicating the content of the policy.

Make sure employees know where to go when a problem occurs

Another goal is to help employees understand how to alert someone when the behavior occurs.   

Make sure supervisors know how to respond

Another goal is to help supervisors understand how to appropriately respond.[1]  Depending on how each supervisor perceives the situation, this kind of training may increase their skill level in both recognizing the issue and understanding appropriate responses. 

Determine whether your workplace needs respectful workplace training

Another goal is to sensitize employees to the seriousness of the issue, and the impact on the workplace and individuals.  This type of training seeks to change individual perceptions and behavior, and might also include helping employees to understand why those subjected to the behavior might complain, and how the behavior impacts victims.  Through training that includes role play, harassment scenarios, victim impact, and discussion about offensiveness from different protected class perspectives, this can have an impact on altering attitudes.

Make sure training includes everyone

While tracking is sometimes difficult in a larger company, making sure everyone receives regular training is important.

Make sure training is not a one-time, lecture format

To accomplish the goals identified as more proactive, i.e. changing culture, training must be delivered in a sustained, effective way, and not a one-time lecture format.  The latter may be effective only to provide information rather than changing attitudes and culture.

Employers and HR professionals will be well served by an in-depth review of their training policies, practices and content, keeping these principles in mind. 

Please contact a Gjording Fouser lawyer at 208.336.9777 if you would like any additional information about this topic or any other employment issues facing your company.

[1] One court held the employer had not reasonably prevented harassment when it did not train supervisors.  The court noted that there was no guidance provided on how to investigate (if that was their role) document, and resolve harassment complaints once they were reported.  EEOC v. Boh Bros. Construction Co., 731 F.3d 444 (5th Cir. 2013).