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MAKING MANDATORY EEO TRAINING EFFECTIVE

by Jennifer Shaw and Eric Glassman | The Daily Recorder | December 13, 2021

Come 2022, many California employers will once again need to make plans to provide mandatory EEO and “abusive conduct” training to all employees. Senate Bill 1343 became law in 2019, requiring employers to provide training every two years, with an initial training deadline of January 1, 2021. As such, employers who trained employees in 2020 must provide updated training in 2022. Employers should carefully consider how to make this important training effective and engaging.

Training Requirements: SB 1343 requires that employers with five or more employees provide all California-based non-supervisory employees at least one hour of training regarding discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and abusive conduct prevention once every two years. A companion law, AB 1825, requires that anyone who supervises at least one California-based employee receive at least two hours of training every two years.

Options for Training: SB 1343 requires that the training be “effective” and “interactive.” The training may be conducted in person, by webinar, or through individualized computer-based sessions. Regardless of the mode of training, participants must be given the opportunity to ask questions.

Trainers must be attorneys or law professors with expertise in employment law, or human resource professionals experienced in handling EEO-related matters.

Required Subject Matter: California mandates that the training cover many specified topics, including the various bases upon which employees are protected from discrimination and harassment under state and federal law, strategies to prevent workplace harassment, supervisors’ mandatory reporting obligations, and available remedies for violations of the law.

The training also must include “practical examples inclusive of harassment based on gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.” Similarly, the trainer must discuss and provide examples of the negative effects of “abusive conduct” in the workplace that is not be based on an employee’s protected status.

Creating Effective Programs: Faced with these statutory requirements, some employers may be tempted to choose the least expensive “plug and play” option to train their employees. Doing so jeopardizes everyone at work.  With so many workplaces rocked by allegations of sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and bullying, just to name a few of the most commons EEO issues, this short-cut approach can lead to significant liability for employers, and a negative work environment for their teams. National surveys show that most American workers believe their employers treat them unfairly or inappropriately because of their sex, race, or other personal characteristics.  An employer that meets its training obligation by providing an hour of generic “off-the-shelf” training on EEO issues puts both the organization and its employees in harms’ way.

To be effective, training must be tailored to the specific workplace. The potential EEO issues facing a small non-profit frequently are different than those likely to arise in a large factory setting, for example, and the training should be customized to match the audience. Individual locations sometimes face recurrent issues that require a more detailed discussion.  In short, one size rarely fits all when it comes to EEO training.

Examples and hypothetical situations discussed by the trainer should be realistic to the workplace and vetted by the employer. Some widely available commercial training materials contain vignettes that are themselves stereotypical and offensive to participants. Such training is ineffective, and likely has a counter-productive effect.

The training also must be engaging. Nothing is gained, and much is potentially lost, by sticking employees in front of a computer to click through a boring training (or worse, the identical training they watched two years ago).  There are so many pressing issues in today’s workplaces, including the rise of harassment against members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, gender and race equity, LGBTQ protections, disability discrimination, that offering employees the “same old thing” in training is a lost opportunity.

Employers should select a trainer with deep expertise, an interesting presentation style, and a sense of humor. Few employees go into mandatory EEO training looking forward to the exercise. However, with the right trainer and content, most will come out of the training having learned some new concepts, and feeling respected and engaged.

It also is important to choose the medium that the workplace, and offers the best opportunity for participant interaction. In-person training often is the most effective at creating a sense of cohesiveness and purpose. By scheduling an “all hands on deck meeting,” the employer is signaling that the training is an important part of the organization’s values.

If done properly, webinars can be extremely effective. The trainer needs to be upbeat and actively encourage questions and comments. Depending on the workplace, participants may be more comfortable asking questions in writing via a webinar than the presence of their peers.

Various vendors offer internet-based training programs. These programs can be effective provided the employer ensures that the material is appropriate, applicable to their workplace, and compliant with California’s statutory requirements.

Like all training, California’s mandatory EEO training can be incredibly effective and empowering, or a dreadful snooze. Customizing the content to address the needs of the workplace and presenting it in an engaging manner will best ensure the success of any organization’s training program.

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