Your Best Defense Against Sexual Harassment Litigation: Training

7 minutes read

The problem of sexual harassment in the workplace continues to plague employers.

To date, 15 states have passed some form of legislation requiring at least some employees to receive sexual harassment training—and virtually all states encourage it. In the fiscal year 2021 alone, the EEOC recovered nearly $62 million in sexual harassment claims, which doesn’t factor in private lawsuits.

These days, simply having an anti-sexual harassment policy isn’t enough to protect against litigation. A growing number of court cases reveals that, often, the outcome hinges on a single factor: whether or not the employer-provided formal sexual harassment training before the event occurred.

Sexual Harassment Law in a Nutshell

The issue of sexual harassment in the workplace first surfaced in the late 1980s, when the Supreme Court interpreted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to recognize sexual harassment as a form of discrimination. The Civil Rights Act applies to employers with 15 or more employees.

Since then, many states have enacted more stringent legislation. Some mandate that all employers—regardless of size—maintain compliance. Some make it easier for employees to sue their employers. And some, like Texas, extend liability to managers that “knew or should have known” there was a problem.

In addition, a growing number of states and cities have mandated that employers conduct anti-sexual harassment training on a regular basis—say, annually or bi-annually. And the other states strongly encourage it, as does the EEOC.

What Recent Court Cases Reveal

When it comes to sexual harassment litigation, there is no shortage of cases to study. The overarching trend: in both state and federal courts, employers who conduct anti-sexual harassment training fair better than those who don’t, regardless of whether a mandate exists.

Why: often, the courts see training as a good-faith effort to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. Similar rulings can be found again in cases ranging from Pullen v. Caddo Parish School Board to Jones v. Dr. Pepper Snapple Group.

In other words, no sexual harassment prevention policy is complete without a thorough, rigorous employee training program—regardless of whether it’s required by law.

Creating an Effective Anti-Sexual Harassment Training Program

A strong anti-sexual harassment training program offers two major benefits. First, in the event of a lawsuit, it may well be your best defense—proof that you’ve worked to build a healthy, respectful work environment. 

Better yet, if your training program is effective, it will help prevent harassment from occurring in the first place—or, at the least, allow you to shut down the offensive behavior quickly.

In order to build an effective training program:

  1. Make it part of a comprehensive, written anti-sexual harassment policy.
  2. Make attendance mandatory.
  3. Create a training schedule and enforce it. (Some states require annual training and the training of new hires early on—an excellent gold standard.)
  4. Frame training in terms of prevention and maintaining a great work environment.
  5. Give employees a clear, straightforward process for reporting an incident.
  6. Include bystander training—i.e., what to do if you see harassment occurring among coworkers.
  7. Require all employees to sign and date a training completion form, and maintain documentation.
  8. Offer managers additional, in-depth training, covering:
  •     Their obligations and personal liability
  •     How to handle employee complaints in real time
  •     A process for documenting employee complaints
  •     How and when to contact Human Resources

At the end of the day, a strong online learning management system will make it easy to create, administer and document your anti-sexual harassment training initiative, while offering best-in-class content, built-in exams, and certifications—plus an analytics dashboard and reporting tools for tracking your progress and compliance. If you want to build a rock-solid sexual harassment training program, it’s a great place to start.  

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