Firms cash in on legal training 

Companies with 50 or more employees are reviewing their workplace sexual-harassment training programs as more detailed California legal requirements go into effect next month.

The state-passed harassment-training law forced all companies doing business in California to educate their supervisors starting in 2005. But now a set of regulations interpreting the law has been completed by the state Fair Employment and Housing Commission, with a review by the Office of Administrative Law and implementation by the secretary of state expected by February, according to government records.

What it means for companies is more pressure to make sure their training is developed and taught by an expert in the law with class-leading experience, whether their course is taught by a person or through a computer. It also means companies should check to make sure the computer-training programs document that training has occurred, maintains the records and engages their supervisors for the full two hours once every two years, according to several lawyers and business people in the field.

In 2004, there were 3,544 sexual-harassment complaints out of 16,323 employment complaints, according to Janie Siess, deputy director at the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

"The training pays for itself, in theory," Littler Mendelson employment-law attorney David Goldman said, adding that sexual-harassment claims are approximately one-fifth of all employment litigation overall.

His firm is one of several local companies that sell services related to the law, part of an outsourcing trend on this issue. Some other San Francisco firms in the field are ELT Inc. and Workplace Answers, both of which offer computer programs vetted by lawyers in the field. All said that while good legal counsel and an experienced human-resources director who’d previously worked with sexual-harassment law could count as "expert," companies should beware of some lecturers in the cottage training industry, and ask questions about their expertise.

"What really struck me in 2005 … was the number of programs that I looked at that were out of compliance," ELT CEO Shanti Atkins said.

Previously, she said, companies could work with programs that made a "good faith" interpretation that a computer course would, on average, take two hours. Now, it needs to actually take two hours for all employees, through either an audio component or a timer that tracks actual engagement, as opposed to just time on the Web browser, she said.

"From a programming standpoint, that is actually a complicated thing to build well," she said.

Interactive components and the ability to get questions answered are also requirements, Workplace Answers COO Mary Lex said. Her firm is hoping that its program, which provides tracking for questions and responses, will be seen as a cost-effective approach for businesses; the firm already has 750 to 1,000 corporate clients.

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