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August 14, 2001
Using PCs to Curb Liability
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Workplace training programs on sexual harassment and discrimination are nothing new, but an increasing number of companies are using computers to educate their workers, according to The New York Times.

So long as employees are trained about impermissible behavior and the recourse that victims can take, an employer will have a strong legal defense against liability if someone harassed by a co-worker sues, employment lawyers tell the Times.

Even though the number of sexual harassment claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has leveled off, the amount paid by employers as a result of such claims has nearly doubled the last five years, rising to $54.6 million last year from $27.8 million in 1996.

Hence, training software can make a great investment. "By the time you get to the year 2005, it will be a very unusual organization that doesn't use this," said Garry G. Mathiason, a partner at Littler Mendelson.

Online training on legal compliance is a $150 million market, Mathiason said, and his firm is betting it will grow rapidly.

"It's very economical," said Diane M. Smith, manager of human resources at Panda Energy International, a Dallas manufacturer of gas-fired power plants that used a program of Littler Mendelson's featuring Jessica Hartman, a fictional victim of sexual harassment.

Employees can go through the program at their desks or from home, she said, and they can stop and start the program as needed. "That works well in our environment," she said, "because we just don't have the time to get people together in a group."

Panda said she considered using an instructor but decided the software would be more engaging. Actual lectures are too often "a snooze," she said.

That was the impression of Harold B. Green, director of corporate communications at Panda. He joined the company last year and took the Jessica Hartman training program this spring. "You had to pay attention to move on" because of the program's pop quizzes, he said. But employees found it fascinating.

The story of Jessica Hartman, who decided to remain silent despite being harassed by co-workers, became a hot topic in the halls at Panda, he said.

"One of the major conversations was, why didn't she go earlier to a supervisor?" said Green, himself a boss. His response to that question, "She was young and inexperienced and didn't know what to do."

He said that after the training that he noticed more questionable behavior by other people, too.

"You're out in social settings and sometimes people, both men and women, make comments about other people just in jest, that they probably should not make," he said. "If they were in a business environment they probably wouldn't, but probably they shouldn't do it at all."

The training also made him think about how standards of acceptable behavior in the workplace have changed. "Comments that were made when I started in the work force when I was 21 would not be appropriate today," Green told the Times.

Online programs have a particular appeal for multinational corporations, where organizing classroom courses would be a logistical nightmare.

Also, if a court decision or legislative initiative changes the rules of the game, an electronic training program can be updated quickly. And then there is the benefit of creating a record of who took the training and when.

To view the New York Times story, click here. Registration required.
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