Saturday, June 26, 2004

Learn about harassment, or pay

Taft HR solutions provides legal training that can provide a defense

By John Eckberg
Enquirer staff writer

As managing director of Taft HR Solutions, Cindy-Ann L. Thomas would never dream of missing work on Jan. 2. In fact, she looks forward to the day.

"My telephone is lit up like a Christmas tree," says Thomas, an attorney who heads the affiliate company of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister, formed about a year ago in the offices of one of the region's largest law firms.

The holidays, she says, "mark the beginning of my season of executive sensitivity training."

Taft HR Solutions has been operating 13 months, providing training and seminars for workers, managers and executives about workplace discrimination or harassment and accusations.

"You have all those office parties from the previous month," Thomas says. "People have said and done and touched things that they should not have said, done and touched."

As many companies know - and others learn the hard way - a simmer of sexuality can turn into a costly sizzle when alcohol is stirred with power at an office party.

And as companies plan their summer cook-outs, human resources firms and divisions are bracing for the second-busiest season of the year: misconduct at summer parties.

Training critical

Generally, the law does not hold a company responsible for actions of workers outside of working hours.

However, when an employer's social function has a business purpose, wrongdoing and corporate liability go together like draft beer and pretzels, particularly for the companies that have not made any effort to train workers about the perils of harassment.

The HR arm of Taft, which offers online, individualized training as well as group and personalized sessions to companies, is not viewed as a threat by the local human resources community, said Steve Browne, director of human resources for CDS Associates Inc., a Blue Ash-based engineering and architectural consulting firm.

"A lot of companies will not have their own HR division, and a legal background is a big plus," said Browne, who also is president of the Greater Cincinnati Human Resources Association.

"It's cheaper to be proactive, much cheaper," says Thomas. "There are still a number of companies out there that think anti-harassment is something that's nice to have and not a must-have."

Why a must-have? Without work force training in place, she says, companies cannot rely on an affirmative defense, that is, an implication that the firm tried to comply with the law but that some individual spurned their best efforts.

"The Supreme Court has said if you don't deliver workforce training in area of harassment, then just go ahead and get ready to write a big check," she says. "A decision by a company not to train their workforce, that's Russian roulette. It's hoping that you'll be 40 percent of the companies that will not be sued."

Personal assets

Another surprise is that in Ohio, personal assets are at risk if a worker wins a judgment against a co-worker, manager or executive: Houses, cars, boats, seven-figure bank accounts and 401Ks, all go into the mix. All are up for grabs.

"That is the biggest jaw-dropper, and that's why so many executives behave after our sessions," she said.

The creation of the Taft affiliate is an example of a growing trend at law firms, said Melissa Josephs, director of equal opportunity policy for Women Employed, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization founded in 1973 that advocates better employment opportunities for women.

While it may seem counterproductive for a law firm to create a company that helps clients avoid legal bills, the bread-and-butter for most law firms, Thomas contends that the litigious nature of work these days gives firms few choices.

"Harassment comes in so many different forms: notes, carved soap, lots of different and creative ways to harass," she said. "I hate to say that, but there really are."

Be careful

Workplace misconduct can be expensive for American companies:

• Following a jury trial, Federal Express of Memphis was ordered in February to pay $3.2 million to a Wrightstown, Pa., woman because male workers created a hostile work environment.

• In April the entertainment company Cirque du Soleil agreed to pay $600,000 to settle an employment discrimination case brought by a performer who was fired because he was HIV-positive.

• Dial Corp. in April 2003 was forced to pay $10 million to 100 women from a federal consent decree that detailed a pattern or practice of sexual harassment at a Montgomery, Ill., factory that made soap for the Dial brand, as well as Coast, Tone and Pure & Natural.

Harassment facts

Workplace harassment is not just about sex.

• The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2003 resolved 87,755 charges brought by workers.

• Of those charges, 30 percent were for gender or sexual discrimination; 35 percent for racial discrimination; 28 percent for retaliation; 24 percent for age discrimination; 19 percent for discrimination because of a disability. (Some were for more than one.)

• Employers paid $236 million in claims last year - down from $257 million in 2002.

Source: G. Neil, a Sunrise, Fla., HR firm



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