Ensuring employees receive appropriate training in key employment law topics is critical to an organization’s success. Staff and management who understand their rights and responsibilities are more productive, dedicated and loyal. And, an employer’s failure to provide effective in certain areas, like Equal Employment Opportunity (“EEO”), can lead to legal liability.

All too often, however, employee training programs are not well designed, engaging or sufficiently tailored to the particular workplace. The result? Employees are bored. They miss key learning concepts, and often feel like the training is a waste of time. With careful planning, however, employers can provide informative and engaging training that delivers lasting messages.

Why Train?

Some leaders are reticent to devote precious time and resources to employee training. Without an immediate “return on investment,” it can be difficult to justify taking employees off line to participate in training that is not directly related to their day-to-day work duties. That said, of course, employees who understand the policies that govern their conduct, like workplace violence prevention, are more likely comply to with those policies.

Training can also provide a legal defense to lawsuits, particularly in the EEO area (e.g., claims for discrimination, harassment and/or retaliation).

And certain types of employee training are required by law. For example, California Government Code section 12950.1 (Assembly Bills 1825 and 2053) requires employers with at least 50 employees anywhere in the world to provide two hours of interactive EEO/“abusive conduct” training to California supervisors at least every two years (more frequently for newly hired or promoted supervisors). In addition, many professionals must meet continuing education requirements. For example, architects in California must undergo five hours of training on disability access requirements every two years.

“Hot” Training Topics

Because of the legal risks associated with EEO-related misconduct at work, training in this area should be a top priority. Although the Government Code requires larger employers (50 plus) to provide EEO training to supervisors, proactive employers offer it to all employees. As discussed below, employers may use online programs to meet their legal obligations, but “live” training is always more effective in conveying the often unpopular (and sometimes confusing!) expectations in harassment/discrimination/retaliation prevention.

Many employers also now see the value of providing workplace violence prevention training to their staff at all levels. Recent domestic terrorism incidents and workplace shootings have left employees frightened and concerned about their safety while at work. Training in this area should include how to recognize potential threats, a review of the organization’s safety procedures, and information about how to safely report situations that could result in violence.

Diversity training is also becoming more popular. Although some employers have often offered diversity awareness training in the past, these sessions should encompass topics far beyond the traditional issues of gender and race, such as generational differences. Employees should understand the business case for creating a diverse workplace, and explores diversity in all of its aspects (i.e., the ways we are both different and the same).

There is also a growing demand for training management on personnel issues, such as employee hiring and discipline, and effectively managing leaves of absence and the reasonable accommodation process.

How to Provide Valuable Workplace Training

Organizations must first decide if an internal group is qualified to provide training on a particular topic, or whether an outside trainer would be more effective. The answer to this question often depends on the subject matter of the session and the employer’s resources. A common mistake? Employers often assume all outside trainers are created equal. Not so. Employers should carefully research a trainer’s skills, subject matter expertise and delivery before making the important decision to bring that person into the workplace. Requiring recent references and/or copies of attendee evaluations is also a good idea.

Although “one size fits all” training programs can be less expensive and easier to deliver, DVD and internet-based “off the shelf” programs are rarely effective. Employees will inevitably multi-task, and they often have difficultly retaining the training’s key concepts. In fact, in a few cases, juries have concluded that employers were not actually committed to the prevention of EEO issues because the employers used “stock” programs. For example, two teenagers who worked for an IHOP restaurant were recently awarded $105,000 due to acts of sexual harassment by an assistant manager. (EEOC v. Management Hospitality of Racine.) In making the award, the court rejected the restaurant’s argument that requiring new employees to watch a training video was an effective method to deter sexual harassment.

Solid training always starts with a qualified instructor, whether internal or external. Employees are quick to notice if the trainer is uncomfortable with the subject matter, or ill prepared. An effective trainer can engage virtually anyone in the audience, and uses humor and examples to help attendees understand the subject matter. Sometimes HR professionals and lawyers use “legalese” in an effort to “prove” their knowledge. Of course, that approach often backfires, as attendees really just want to understand what is expected of them on a day-to-day basis, not what some random jury awarded in a particular case or whether an appellate court decision was unanimous.

Training should also encourage attendees to participate in discussion. In fact, Government Code section 12950.1 requires EEO training to be “interactive.” Trainers who tell employees to hold their questions until the end of the session are off putting, and employees will often tune out immediately when they get the message that their participation is not welcome. Trainers also should be adept at fielding questions that are off topic, or asked with an agenda. Obviously, trainers should not use a script, or refer to notes during a session. The trainer should know the subject matter inside and out, and use any audience participation as a tool to driver home the most important messages of the session.

Some Final Thoughts

Employers that commit the time, energy and resources to developing effective workplace law training programs always come out ahead. Their employees are knowledgeable, less likely to bring external complaints, and sometimes even appreciative of the employer’s efforts.

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