Why One-on-One Training Makes Sense for Professional Service Providers
Far too frequently, in my experience, professional service providers – attorneys, doctors, accountants, financial planners and the like – believe that they are immune from complaints of harassment and discrimination. Of course, they assume incorrectly. Business pages as well as the legal reporting services are filled with case descriptions of all manner of harassment and discrimination claims against professional service providers of every ilk. The verdicts, when they occur, can be staggering both with respect to the individual involved and his or her employer, and the adverse publicity to the firm, company, or practice is often incalculable. That said, what should professional service providers to do prevent such claims from being filed in the first instance and to address such charges once made? The answer to the first question should be self evident. Namely, professional service providers should do what other smart employers do -- develop, implement, and distribute comprehensive anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies and conduct regular training for all employees with the assistance of an experienced employment attorney.
If an informal charge of discrimination or harassment is made, the professional service provider should immediately and fully investigate the charges and utilize the assistance of outside counsel when doing so. Where appropriate, the employer should also immediately explore all available insurance coverages. Often times, the investigation is inconclusive, and there is uncertainty as to precisely what actually happened as well as the seriousness of the incident.
In these instances, what, if any, “remedial action” should a professional service provider consider? Although each instance must be assessed individually on its merits, one remedial measure which should strongly be considered is having the alleged “offender” receive one-on-one training with an experienced employment attorney. This is particularly true when the alleged offender is a partner, owner, or more senior member of the employer and/or one whose actions can bind the employer. I have been offering this service to my clients for some time now and know first-hand what a positive impact one-on-one interventions can have.
This type of training can be done privately, off site, and with little fanfare. Typically, the training involves a review of the applicable employment laws and, perhaps just as significantly, the liability principles associated with claims of harassment or discrimination against supervisors, managers, and owners. This training also should include a practical assessment of the public relations and other consequences of even a perception of wrongdoing. In the “real time” news world in which we live, I like to remind clients that the perception of wrongdoing by professionals whose business depends upon their reputation can be devastating. Accordingly, the training should involve some practical suggestions on ways to avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time; strategies for handling potentially uncomfortable situations that are unique to the individual’s work environment or his/her approach to work; as well as an overview of scenarios where claims have originated in the past.
The advantages of one-on-one training can be very significant and include the following:
First, it allows the employer to make a defense to any sort of subsequent administrative claim or lawsuit which is filed that the employer investigated the allegations promptly and took appropriate remedial action. Of course, as noted, the facts and circumstances of each individual situation need to be assessed to determine whether one-on-one training is, in fact, the appropriate remedy or whether some other remedy would be more appropriate under the circumstances.
Second, training with an experienced employment attorney allows for a candid, private conversation with someone who will ordinarily be viewed as a professional contemporary. It is my experience that individuals in these circumstances appreciate having the opportunity to discuss such serious charges with an experienced professional who works under the same pressures that they face every day.
Third, the training can be conducted in a very private manner which minimizes, if not eliminates, unnecessary embarrassment or publicity that the training has occurred. I typically meet individuals away from their offices to avoid any possibility that colleagues might learn the purpose of our meetings.
Fourth, the training sensitizes individuals of the new realities under which professionals operate and the higher standards of professional conduct and personal comportment to which they are often held. Often, individuals seem to believe that because they “have always done it this way”, their behavior has somehow been condoned by the firm.
Fifth, one-on-one training has a face saving quality to it in that the individual is not publically vilified, yet is unquestionably advised of the significance of his or her acts and omissions. It also presents an opportunity for a frank discussion of the individual’s day-to-day challenges in his or her work environment and team.
In summary, one-on-one training for professionals in the circumstances described above can be a very practical and cost effective way in which to address assertions of discrimination, harassment, or other inappropriate conduct. The training can have wide ranging and longstanding positive benefits not only for the individual involved but also to the individual’s employer.
[Note: This article is not intended to provide specific legal advice or opinions regarding any specific matter. The application of the concepts and matters discussed in this outline is dependent upon the specific facts and circumstances of individual situations, the application of federal, state, and local laws, and the application of controlling case law. ]
Marc R. Engel, Esq. is a shareholder at Lerch, Early & Brewer, Chartered where he is a member of the firm's Employment and Labor and Litigation Groups, and co-chairs the Employment and Labor Group. Marc advises clients on employment issues, litigates employment and business disputes, and counsels companies and organizations on litigation avoidance strategies. He also mediates employment and civil litigation matters, and conducts one-on-one private training for professional service providers. In 2006, Marc was selected as a member of the “Greater Washington Legal Elite” by SmartCEO Magazine. Marc can be contacted at (301) 657-0814 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the firm, please visit our website at www.LerchEarly.com.