Training your Employees

How about some sobering statistics for employers?

  • The average jury verdict for sexual harassment cases nationwide was found to be $1 million in a 2002 study titled “The Changing Nation of Employment Insurance”.
  • That same study found that the average jury verdict for wrongful termination cases (such as discrimination) is $1.8 million.
  • The average cost to settle any lawsuit is $300,000, according to that same study.

Granted, these numbers include verdicts from states, such as California, where the juries have apparently never met a plaintiff they don’t want to reward with a big verdict. But even in Texas Panhandle, the land of more conservative jurors, it is clear to me after almost 20 years of practicing employment law that employers are at risk in the courthouse.

One of the best ways to reduce the risk of employee litigation is training your staff, particularly anyone with supervisory authority, to recognize and prevent problems in your workplace that lead to lawsuits.

A 2001 study of human resources professionals found that 82% of them believed that employment law training of managers was effective or extremely effective in reducing litigation in their companies.

If reducing litigation weren’t enough incentive to institute regular employment law training of your managers, evidence of a company’s commitment to training is also becoming the best defense you can have in court to avoid some employee verdicts altogether and to reduce punitive damages in others.

In 1999, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Kolstad v. American Dental Assoc. that a company wasn’t responsible for punitive damages for the discriminatory actions of a supervisor whose actions were contrary to the company’s good faith efforts to prevent discrimination. The company’s good faith was demonstrated by the adoption and implementation of equal employment opportunity policies and the training of company personnel about what is prohibited under the discrimination laws.

The courts have also applied an opposite principle: an employee suing a company can show the lack of training provided to managers as willful disregard of the law and a good reason to allow a jury to consider an award of punitive damages.

Not only are the courts getting on the training bandwagon, but so are the state legislatures. California, Maine and Connecticut require employees in those states to be trained in preventing illegal workplace harassment. Even if Texas has not made such training mandatory yet (except for employees of state agencies), a reasonable Texas employer will still provide employment law instruction to its managers.

What do your employees need to learn? Every employee working in a company of at least 15 employees should receive at least 2-3 hours annual instruction on identifying, preventing, reporting and surviving illegal harassment on the basis of an employee’s age, race, gender, religion, etc. Several hours of safety and workplace violence prevention are also necessary for all employees.

But for managers, those few courses are not enough. Supervisors need lots of high quality, interactive instruction on myriad employment law issues, such as hiring, supervising and firing employees legally, applying wage and hour laws, preventing discrimination, evaluating employee performance, coaching and disciplining employees, managing disabled employees, preventing substance abuse in your workplace, managing on-the-job injuries and controlling absenteeism.

There are many sources that can provide the necessary training. Employment lawyers like me spend many hours working with private companies to design and present customized employee training.  Amarillo College’s Business and Industry Center offers a variety of workplace training almost every week. The Panhandle Human Resources Association provides an hour of instruction every month at their meetings and at least one daylong seminar every year.

Texas Panhandle employers must become very proactive in seeking out and requiring workplace training for their staffs, particularly their managers, if they don’t want to become just another large jury verdict statistic. 

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