In a recent episode of HBO’s “The Newsroom,” Rebecca Halliday (lawyer) vented to Will McAvoy (news anchor and also a lawyer) that her client, the television news agency, did not provide adequate training to Neel Sampat (news staffer), who was about to be accused of conspiring to commit espionage. Her suggestion that employers train employees regarding nuances of certain legal requirements is not farfetched. For example, California law requires employers to provide anti-harassment training to employees, which training aids employers in preventing harassment and, accordingly, avoiding liability for harassment.
Comprehensive training, particularly management training, in fact has broad practical applications that go far beyond protection against civil or criminal liability. By definition, managers and supervisors manage and supervise other personnel. Typically, they are skilled at managing the production of work. Often, however, they are unskilled at managing matters that are not related to production, such as enforcing personnel policies. Training of managers and supervisors regarding the appropriate interpretation and enforcement of the company’s personnel policies goes a long way to avoid not only potential legal exposure, but also to promote consistent application of those policies.
Many employers go to great lengths to prepare a detailed employee handbook that explains their policies, procedures and expectations. Companies often seek guidance from attorneys regarding the content of such policies, at significant expense. Employers distribute their handbooks to employees and ask those employees to acknowledge that they will abide by the policies. All too often, however, everyone, except perhaps HR, then forgets about the handbook. Employees, including managers and supervisors, frequently do not even read the handbook. Those same managers and supervisors have daily direct communication with the workers for whom they are responsible and thus are at the front line of personnel-related issues. If the supervisor is unfamiliar with the company’s policies, he or she is ill equipped to manage in a manner that is consistent with those policies.
“Isn’t that what HR is for?” some may ask. Managers and supervisors, like the workers they supervise, often avoid HR. Managers may do so because of a perception that HR will interfere with their department’s morale or its ability to achieve goals. Managers and supervisors should be made to understand that HR is their partner, not their adversary. This partnership can be established in training. To ensure that the employment policies in which they have invested are appropriately interpreted and enforced, employers should likewise invest in adequate training of managers and supervisors so that those who are in the best position to enforce those policies actually do so. This investment no doubt will pay long term dividends, even when the issue does not involve a possible conspiracy to commit espionage.