Here’s a Switch: Attorney Urges Avoiding Litigation

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Janice Brown wishes she didn’t have to run across California laws like Assembly Bill 1825.

The law, due to go into effect Jan. 1, requires companies with 50 or more employees to provide sexual harassment prevention training to all supervisors. Companies were given a year to complete the training.

Brown says she has nothing against the law.

"I just don’t think employers should have to be told to do this," says Brown, a San Diego attorney who has conducted sexual harassment seminars for many of her clients. "It’s something all companies should have done on their own, but they didn’t, and now we have a law to make sure they do."

The law is straight-forward. It attempts to make supervisors aware of their responsibilities for detecting and handling sexual harassment in the workplace.

Nationally, sexual harassment complaints increased steadily through the mid-1990s, when complaints leveled off at about 15,000 a year, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The federal agency estimates that formal sexual harassment complaints cost employers up to $50 million a year.

That figure doesn’t include the productivity losses suffered by morale problems stemming from sexual harassment incidents. A Louis Harris poll reported that 31 percent of women and 7 percent of men have experienced sexual harassment on the job, but 62 percent of those harassed never reported it to their employers.

The California Chamber of Commerce says that more than 30,000 supervisors have gone through its harassment prevention training since May. Other employer groups such as local chambers of commerce, business associations such as the San Diego Employers Association and the Los Angeles-based Employers Group, have been holding other training sessions.

Brown is concerned, however, that a large number of companies doing business in California haven’t acted to invest in harassment training.

"I’m not sure anyone knows who has and who hasn’t completed this, but I’m sure there are a lot of companies who haven’t yet done it," she says.

Barratt American, a Carlsbad home-building company, says it trained all of its 135 employees during a five-week period this fall. Supervisors and non-supervisors were included.

"We felt this is the kind of thing that everyone should know about, because there are obligations on everyone when it occurs," says Donna Rowley, Barratt American’s vice president of human resources.

"It’s a good reminder for supervisors, for what they have to look out for in the workplace, but it also is important for the rest of our employees," Rowley says. "We wanted to educate our employees to let them know what sexual harassment is, and then we wanted to let them know what they need to do if they think it’s going on."

Rowley believes that too often companies and their employees don’t understand enough about sexual harassment, which can make small incidents big and lead to morale problems that hinder productivity.

"We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had a history of complaints, but we wanted to educate our employees," she says. "When somebody says you look nice, it doesn’t constitute sexual harassment.

"If your employees don’t understand that, you can have problems at work whether these things develop into formal complaints or not. We wanted our employees to know that."

Barratt American estimates it cost $27,000 to send its staff through the 2½ -hour training sessions.

"Everyone here thinks it was a good investment," Rowley says. "Who knows how much that could possibly save us? And, we believe that anytime you investment in your employees, you are making a good investment."

Brown says that enlightened companies are smart to train all their employees about how to detect, report and handle sexual harassment incidents.

"There’s so much misinterpretation out there that it’s always good to make everyone aware of what sexual harassment is and your company’s policy for handling it," she says.

Brown thinks California is on the cutting edge. It’s the first state to require mandatory sexual harassment prevention training for supervisors.

Yet, the state could have been bolder. It could have required that training for all 14.8 million of the state’s workers.

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