Why In-Person Sexual Harassment Training is More Important Than Ever

If the weekly (seemingly daily) allegations of sexual harassment — and the equally stunning admissions of sexual harassment — are not enough to convince employers of the need for harassment training, it is hard to imagine what will. For cynics who believe that these allegations of harassment are confined to Hollywood, media companies, and political figures – well, they can proceed at their peril.

If the need for conducting harassment training is now a settled question, then the only issue that remains is how the training should be conducted. Although online training in numerous areas certainly has a role in the workplace place, when it comes to meaningful, effective harassment training, in-person training by a knowledgeable attorney is the best choice.

A commercial from a number of years ago used the catch phrase “Is it live or is it Memorex?” During these commercials, the viewers were asked to guess whether the singing was actually being done by a live performer or whether it was simply just a tape of a performance. The “hook” for the commercial was that the tape was every bit as good as the original. That old commercial came to mind when I am asked (with some regularity) why I believe in-person anti-harassment training is better and far more valuable than training available over the internet or through computer programs.

In my view, in-person harassment training continues to be the far preferable alternative, for a number of reasons. First, having a knowledgeable attorney conduct the training is a powerful way to convey the organization’s commitment to a zero tolerance policy for harassment. Second, live training is interactive and results in listeners having their questions answered. During workshops, for example, I routinely use video clips which depict possible harassment scenarios and then proceed to discuss them with the attendees. I then make various changes to the fact patterns suggested in the video clips so that the attendees can get a broader, “real world” sense of how and when complaints of harassment can occur, and how and why understanding individual perceptions is so critical to achieving a successful workplace free from harassment. This also leads to a discussion of the corrosive effect which insensitive and intolerant behavior can have on the workplace and employee morale, even if such conduct does not rise to the level of actual unlawful harassment.

Third, conducting live training for managers drives home the importance of identifying and acting upon claims of harassment, discrimination and/or bullying in a timely manner, and how the failure to do can result in serious legal exposure. Fourth, the workshops emphasize the importance of a constructive dialogue between managers and Human Resource representatives in terms of addressing and responding to these types of claims. Fifth, administrative agencies and courts expect employers to have more than an aspirational policy, regardless of how well crafted it is. They expect employers to actually enforce these policies — that is, to “walk the walk” — and in-person harassment training of all employees is an excellent way to express the commitment to a harassment-free workplace. Last, but not least, in-person training allows the trainer to impress upon employees and managers that, in many instances, successful strategies for eliminating harassment – namely, fostering tolerance, open communication, civility – are the same strategies which the “best places to work” employers implement with respect to employee communications in general.

Harassment claims are skyrocketing (with no end in sight) and, when successful, have yielded large verdicts. Even allegations of harassment that are ultimately found not to be unlawful can have staggering financial and other consequences. Employers can do a tremendous amount to minimize the risk of getting sued for these types of claims (and best positioning themselves to defend such claims) by conducting meaningful harassment training and teaching employees and managers how to respond if inappropriate conduct occurs. In my view, on-line questionnaires and training tools cannot fully and meaningfully communicate (i) the practical context in which so many of these claims arise; (ii) the reasons why so many lawsuits are filed; (iii) the legal, practical, and appropriate manner of handling such complaints when they do arise; and (iv) the costs, economic and otherwise, of not acting upon complaints in an appropriate and timely manner.

When it comes to effective and valuable anti-harassment training, “Memorex” is not nearly as effective as a live performance.

Marc Engel is an employment attorney committed to proactively helping for profit and nonprofit employers minimize the risk of employment claims; establish sound and effective employment documents and policies, and resolve local, state, and federal workplace disputes throughout the Washington, DC area. For more information about sexual harassment training, contact Marc at 301-657-0184 or [email protected].