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Protect Your Company From Sexual Harassment Claims

 By Amy Hackney Blackwell (amyblackwell@wwwiz.com)

Every employer knows that sexual harassment can be a problem in the workplace. Sometimes claims of sexual harassment come as a complete surprise; no one knew anything was going on and out of the blue an employee complains that he or she has been tormented for months. The frightening thing is that an employer can be held responsible for the behavior of its employees. If an employee decides to sue for sexual harassment, the employer can be in big trouble.

            The good news is that employers can take steps to minimize their liability from sexual harassment lawsuits. One of the best things an employer can do is train its employees to recognize and avoid harassing behavior. Not only will this help prevent sexual harassment, making for a more stable work environment, it can also absolve an employer of some liability if an employee does get harassed. For example, a company won a 1997 case in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals because it had a well-publicized harassment prevention program. And the U.S. Supreme Court reinforced this in two 1998 cases, creating an affirmative defense for employers who try to prevent and correct any sexually harassing behavior in the workplace.

Many employers have to train their employees whether they want to or not; the EEOC now requires all organizations with more than 15 employees to teach their workers about the issues of sexual harassment. Training won't prevent all sexual harassment, and it won't necessarily get an employer off the hook, but it certainly can't hurt.

            Before investigating training programs, it's not a bad idea to study the basics of the law on sexual harassment. There is a ton of information on sexual harassment available on the Web. Legal information Web sites such as FreeAdvice.com ( employment-law.freeadvice.com/sexual_harassment/) and USLaw.com (http://www.uslaw.com/problem.tcl?problem_id=140) summarize key points and can be a good starting point for an employer who wants to know about the issue before trying to find the best training program for her workplace. Information on Sexual Harassment ( www.de.psu.edu/harassment/) is also a good source.

            There are a huge number of sexual harassment training programs available, ranging from free online programs, to videos with leaders' guidebooks, to elaborate full-day seminars with outside instructors and role-playing. Most companies providing these services are easily found and contacted over the Internet. Good programs will discuss the law, explain the difference between quid pro quo and hostile environment harassment, and illustrate several typical harassment situations: overly friendly bosses, rude jokes or co-worker dating. Most programs issue certificates stating that employees have completed their training, which can serve as proof that the employer has actively worked to prevent harassment in the workplace. Costs range widely, from several hundred to several thousand dollars. Employers usually can sample a program before paying for it; most of the video and computer courses offer free demos.

            For those who like to do everything digitally, there are numerous computer training programs, on disk and CD-ROM or online. BLR Products (www.blrproducts.com/hr/sex_harass.htm) sells a $199 training program on CD-ROM that includes PowerPoint presentations, case studies and scenarios, a trainee workbook, and ``slide by slide speaker notes to make anyone an instant trainer." Interactive Employment Training ( www.interactiveemploymenttraining.com/onlinecourse.html), run by two employment lawyers, sells CD-ROM courses, online courses and customizable videos that can include a company's own anti-harassment policy and a statement from its CEO. The company offers free demos and also supplies informative tours of various programs on its Web site.

            BusinessKnowHow.com ( www.businessknowhow.com/store/aboutharasstrain.htm) sells a comprehensive program with CD-ROM, workbooks and PowerPoint presentations for $649. It includes versions for new hires and retraining and has been reviewed by labor attorneys who approved it as a solid harassment awareness program. This program is handy because it can be used any number of times, useful when new hires arrive. Don't want to pay for training? CPA Mutual (www.cpamutual.com/freesoft.html) offers a short free program on its Web site that covers the legal basics and guidelines for avoiding harassing behavior and concludes with a short mastery test and a certificate of participation. And even though it's free, the quality really isn't bad.

Many employers choose video programs for sexual harassment training. Videos are especially good at illustrating the sometimes subtle distinction between harassment and acceptable behavior in a way that is easy for employees to understand. Employers can conduct the programs themselves without involving an expensive outside trainer. There are hundreds of videos available, to suit every workplace and training style. Some videos feature experts explaining the law and analyzing scenarios. Others feature engaging young actors who discuss respect and admonish everyone to treat co-workers nicely.

            It is important to choose a video that is appropriate for the individual workplace; some employees would respond well to an intellectual discussion of the law, whereas others would be bored and prefer to see attractive people acting out scenarios they can understand. Most companies that sell videos allow employers to preview them for free, and can also help a boss select the program or programs that would be best for a given company. Good sources of videos include the Richardson Company ( www.rctm.com), and BusinessTrainingMedia.com (www.business-marketing.com/store/sexualharassment.html) and TrainSeek.com (www.trainseek.com/search/results.cfm?searchtype=normal&searchw ords=sexual+harassment). Most videos come as part of a complete training program, including leader's guides, employee handbooks, opinion surveys and pocket cards. Videos cost from $300 to $700; some companies offer rentals or multiple purchase discounts.

            Some employers would prefer to bring in outside instructors to teach their employees about sexual harassment, perhaps letting them engage in role-playing so that they can get a true understanding of the concepts. The EEOC, in an effort to prevent sexual harassment instead of just investigating and litigating claims after the fact, has recently begun offering customer-specific training on various forms of discrimination, including sexual harassment ( www.eeoc.gov/taps/customerspecific.html). The length of the training and the cost depend on the customer's stated needs. The EEOC also holds regular Technical Assistance Program Seminars (TAPS, www.eeoc.gov/taps/private.html) that train supervisors to prevent problems and resolve complaints of discrimination. These seminars include informal small-group discussions and question and answer periods. Full-day sessions cost $235. A company that doesn't mind spending a lot of money can hire outside trainers to give employees customized training. Private consulting firms such as Simmons Associates (www.simmonsassoc.com/index.html) conduct interactive seminars to teach managers and employees skills to deal with real-world situations; prices are set individually, depending on the program selected. There is also the SHAME (Sexual Harassment Awareness Managed Effectively) Program available from The Trainers ( http://www.thetrainers.com/tt20000.html), which uses a board game as the centerpiece of its half-day seminars. Sanders and Wade ( http://www.sandersandwade.com/training.htm) also offers seminars for employees and supervisors.

            Clearly, there are a number of options for employers wishing to train their employees in matters of sexual harassment. The courts haven't recommended any particular length or format for training, so it is basically up to the employer to decide. There are several factors to consider, including the length of time available for training and the amount of money the company wants to spend. An employer should also look at the nature of the workplace; a computer program might be appropriate for an office where everyone works independently at their own pace, but other employees might respond much better to a video/discussion combination. Whatever the format, the wide availability of sexual harassment training programs is a positive development for the modern working environment.

 

Amy Hackney Blackwell (http://members.home.com/amyblackwell) is an attorney and a writer in Greenville, S.C. Her legal interests include cyberspace law and international environmental issues. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Parachutist, Healing Retreats and Spas, the ABA Journal and the Chronicle of Higher Education. She also does commentaries for public radio. She has lived and worked in Japan and Europe, and speaks Japanese, French and German.

 

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