I had the pleasure of revisitng the issue of training to avoid or address harassment and discrimination in the workplace at the Lower Bucks Chamber of Commerce ECONference 2018 on May 23, 2018. The questions from participants reminded me that training is a valuable tool not only for risk prevention, but also to improve workplace culture.
Training has become a “check the box” activity: the employer gets to say that it provided training, in the event of a claim. The employees are required to attend in order to keep their jobs, and so they attend and zone out. Employer and employees are going through the motions. The lawyers told them to train, so the employer is training.
Here’s what I’ve learned: the serious offenders, those who engage in serial harassment, inappropriate relationships or even assault, are going to engage in that behavior no matter what training you provide. An employee who lacks the insight to know that certain behaviors are unacceptable (everywhere, really) will not have an epiphany during mandatory employee training. One-on-one training often helps in these situations, but not always, and not fundamentally (that is, the employee will know what to do to stay employed, but will not really care that the behavior was inappropriate).
Employers should provide training – it is good risk management for certain employers. But, perhaps it should be a more sincere activity on both sides: employers should consider more interactive training, smaller groups and individualized training for departments. Employers should engage in self-evaluation of workplace culture prior to planning the training.
Further, if the goal is prevention of harassment, hostile work environment claims or other unacceptable workplace behaviors, generalized training is not always the answer. Instead, employers should remember that culture comes from the top. If officers, supervisors and managers maintain professionalism, it sets the tone. It might be valuable to warn and provide one-on-one training to managers who do not demonstrate professional behavior, but in the end, appropriate workplace behavior should be a qualification for any leadership role.
No lawyer will ever advise an employer not to provide training, but perhaps it is time to be more thoughtful about what training looks like for specific employees. Avoiding litigation cannot be the only goal, or the training will never work. I frequently work with employers to come up with meaningful training plans that comply with the law, and are appropriate for their business.
Harvey Weinstein’s conduct is irresponsible, atrocious and potentially criminal, but that’s not the point of this blog. Instead, I would like to take the opportunity presented by Weinstein’s case (and the many others in the news this year) to talk about reporting and remediating workplace harassment.
Weinstein is the next in a line of prominent men accused of decades of harassment. It appears that at places like Fox and Miramax, and now Amazon, harassment by the boss was a feature of workplace culture. How did responsible employers allow this to continue? Did the women not complain? Did the employer bury the accusation? Didn’t anyone know? There is some evidence that the answer to all of these questions is yes: the women felt that they could not complain, the employer buried the accusations with financial settlements, and many knew and did not raise any red flags out of fear or intimidation.
The other common theme in these cases is the kind of harassment that took place: abuse of position, arrogance about complaints, “quid pro quo” promises, and intimidation.
Employers should consider their policies and practices to ensure a workplace free from this conduct. Serial harassers poison the culture of the workplace and hurt the bottom line. A recent article in the Wall Street Journalnoted the impact on the workplace of “rude” employees. Imagine the impact of intimidating, harassing executives who abuse their power? If employers have a serial harasser in a leadership position, it is time to face the music and address the behavior.
Employees should have an easy means of complaining. Policies should allow employees to “go around” the harassing superior in order to make the complaint, and the harasser should not be included in decision making regarding the complaint. Employers should avoid overly formal complaint procedures or reliance on form over substance. Employers should conduct professional, confidential investigations, and farm the investigation out to a third party if necessary.
It is important to note that settlements are not a license to keep a harasser employed. The employer still has knowledge of the harasser’s bad behavior, and steps should be taken to avoid repeated incidents. Those steps might include termination of important employees.
A common theme in these high-profile cases is that the conduct started (and thus the culture was created) in a “different time” when these workplace protections were not in place. That’s absurd. Title VII became law in 1964, and employers should pride themselves on operating a modern workplace, compliant with laws that have been on the books for decades.
So, how modern is your workplace? Do you have a serial harasser? Are you burying complaints to protect an executive? Do your employees have a safe, easy way to make complaints to an independent person? AMM can help employer develop a common sense policy that protects your business and your employees.
Clarifying its earlier rulings, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (which includes Pennsylvania) has ruled that a single utterance of a racial slur at the workplace could support a claim for harassment.
In this case, two African-American males (plaintiffs) brought suit challenging their firing on the basis that their termination was discriminatory and racially motivated.
The employees specifically alleged that when they arrived at work on various occasions, an anonymous note was written on the sign-in sheets: “don’t be black on the right of way.” They also asserted that while they had more experience working on pipelines than the non-African-American workers, they were only permitted to clean the pipelines rather than work on them. Significantly, a supervisor of these two African-American employees used a severe racial slur to threaten firing if a specific project was not completed to his satisfaction.
The two employees reported this offensive language to a superior and two weeks later they were fired without explanation. After being rehired they were again terminated for “lack of work”.
The suit filed in federal District Court specifically alleged unlawful harassment, discrimination and retaliation. The District Court dismissed the harassment claim, holding that the facts in the complaint did not support a finding that the alleged harassment was “pervasive and regular”. The Court also dismissed the related claims of discrimination and retaliation.