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Law: Six training tips to help you avoid a lawsuit

No one likes to be sued.

Ask your chief financial officer to run these numbers for you: the amount you spent in employment litigation last year versus how much you paid out to train your managers on best practices and preventing litigation.

In light of several recent large-dollar settlements and verdicts, an employer always will save money by attempting to avoid litigation through better training and awareness. Why? Contented employees rarely sue.

The National Guard in the District of Columbia, for example, recently had to pay $231,000 after failing to investigate an employee’s complaint of repeated sexual harassment. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found the Guard’s investigation was so flawed it was “as good as useless.”

Likewise, a female firefighter in Missouri was awarded $1.7 million after a jury found she had been fired for complaining about sexual harassment and her supervisor had done nothing about it.

Here are several key training areas to improve your chances of successfully avoiding a lawsuit:

1. Train your employees to mind their own business and keep their hands to themselves. Don’t hug employees.

Avoid inappropriate discussions about employee personal lives. Don’t ask applicants about their religion, marriage, retirement plans or family planning.

2. Teach your employees that you will keep your promises.

Manage employee expectations. If your handbook has progressive discipline, follow it.

Conversely, don’t make empty promises you cannot keep, such as “You have a job here until you retire.” Plaintiffs remember those things.

3. Train your employees not to tease. A relaxed casual workplace atmosphere is fine, but don’t let employees make fun of other people’s gender, sexual preference, religion, etc.

Joking often can go too far, and managers have to be careful to keep joking within acceptable limits.

If a complaint is made, investigate it promptly. It is not enough to tell the employee to learn how to “take it” or to tough it out.

4. Train your managers to tell the truth.

Many managers want to be “nice” and don’t want to criticize employees. If you want to change behavior and retain employees, your managers have to tell underperforming employees what is wrong and how to correct it.

5. Teach your managers not to retaliate or to take complaints too personally.

No manager enjoys being accused of discrimination or unfair treatment by an employee. Under the law, however, it is now much easier to show that an employee suffered an adverse employment action due to retaliation.

A negative performance review, job transfer or reduced workload, for example, could be considered an adverse action by the court. An employer that receives a discrimination complaint must be particularly cautious in future dealings with that employee.

6. Take your training seriously. Testimony at the Missouri firefighter trial, for example, indicated that the firefighters were shown sexual harassment training videos on a split screen so they could also watch a NASCAR race.

As the verdict suggested, the jury was not amused. The plaintiff was awarded $1.7 million.

Every employment issue has the potential to be second-guessed by an employee’s lawyer and judge or jury

Good training and applying common sense and fairness in advance of problems will go a long way toward avoiding litigation down the road.

Wilford H. Stone is with Lynch Dallas Attorneys at Low, wstone@lynchdallas.com

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