Tom Bolt & Associates,P.C. and its affiliated firm, Kilpatrick Stockton, LLP recently held sexual harassment training sponsored by the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce and the USVI Hotel & Tourism Association.  The training was mandated adopted by the Virgin Islands earlier this year.

St. Thomas attorney Ravinder Nagi who coordinated the traning sessions noted that the San Francisco Chronicle recently reported that workplace harassment training is paying off.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has also reported that the number of harassment claims has dropped by 20% since 1997.

According to experts cited by the Chronicle, training has led to a decline in claims for two reasons. First, training gives managers and employees a better understanding of what constitutes appropriate behavior and sends the message that inappropriate conduct will not be tolerated. The chairman of ELT’s Board of Directors, Garry Mathiason, was quoted as saying:

“In 90% of cases, when the violators are clearly told the behavior is not tolerated, it will stop. But when that message is not communicated, that’s when the thing escalates.”

Second, training empowers employees by giving them information on what to do if they feel they have been harassed or faced discrimination. As the founder of Stanford University’s Sexual Harassment Policy Office noted:

“The training gives employees the sense that there is an office where help is available, where they can consult ‘off the record’ and that is incredibly important.” 

On the flip side, training also delivers an important message to managers – many of whom do not realize that they can be held personally liable for harassing or discriminatory conduct. That means managers engaging in wrongful conduct are putting their own assets at risk – not just the assets of their employer.

One recent case in the news brings all this together. 

The case involved Alarm One. One of the company’s employees brought a harassment claim after being spanked in a “team building” exercise. Hard to believe any manager in this day and age would create a team building program involving spanking – but they did.

Though the supervisors involved had received sexual harassment training, the employee was ignored when she later complained about the incident. The obvious conclusion? The training was ineffective and the company blew off the complaint. 

The result? The jury awarded $1.7 million in damages. The company must pay $1.6 million, and the two supervisors involved must pay $50,000 each. And this result is not far off the average. While in 1994 the average harassment jury award was $141,000, today it’s $1 million (according to a recent report by the Insurance Coverage Litigation Reporter and Business Wire).

The take away lessons:

  1. Training works. It is an effective risk management tool that is lowering the number of claims every day.
  2. Your choice in training is incredibly important. It must be designed to give employees quality information, encourage employees to report problems, and bring home the message to managers that complaints must be taken seriously. That means using a highly interactive, engaging program that actually has the power to change behavior.

Here’s the bottom line: Experienced medical malpractice lawyers will tell you that doctors don’t get sued by patients who just have bad outcomes. They get sued by patients who are mad – most often about the way they have been treated, and how their concerns were addressed.

The same is true in employment cases. Training is an effective way to manage risk, and to put a stake in the sand in terms of what your company expects from its employees and managers. It works.

But you can’t just talk a good game in the training program. Your response to real world complaints must be consistent with the ideals and standards in your training program. A disconnect between training and practice can make plaintiffs angrier and destroy the tangible benefits training can deliver.