Compliance Through Effective Supervisor Training: Part 1

One way an employer can reduce its liability risks is to ensure that its supervisors have the knowledge and tools necessary to comply with all applicable employment-related laws. This can be achieved by providing supervisors with regular training on what they are expected and obligated to do in certain workplace situations.

While supervisor training programs should be tailored to each company’s specific needs and workplace culture, certain key compliance topics can be particularly helpful for avoiding employee disputes and government investigations or penalties. This Compliance Overview provides general information about these key compliance topics and also includes practical tips for crafting an effective supervisor training program.

Employers should determine the exact training that may be appropriate for their particular workforces and whether any applicable laws require certain types of training.


A growing number of state and local laws require employers to provide sexual harassment prevention training to all employees. Even where no such obligation applies, however, all employers should ensure that their supervisors are well-versed in how to recognize and appropriately respond to any type of unlawful conduct in the workplace.

This training should include comprehensive information about all applicable anti-discrimination laws. For example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII) is a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals based on certain protected traits, including race, color, religion, national origin and sex. Under Title VII, harassment based on any protected trait is a form of prohibited discrimination.

While Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees, most states and cities have similar laws that apply to smaller employers. These laws often include additional or broader categories of protected classes—such as sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression – and may impose additional obligations on employers – such as requirements to adopt written workplace policies.

All employers should have a written policy on workplace harassment regardless of whether a law requires it, and any supervisor training program should include detailed information about the policy. At minimum, all supervisors should be fully trained on:

  • The fact that certain conduct, such as workplace sexual harassment, is illegal;
  • What constitutes unlawful conduct, as illustrated through real-life examples;
  • What they must do when an employee reports unlawful conduct to them; and
  • What they must do when they witness unlawful (or potentially unlawful) conduct themselves.

Supervisor training should also include strategies for preventing unlawful conduct in the first place, as well as for avoiding discrimination claims. These strategies may include, for example:

  • Keeping conversations with employees focused on job-related topics; and
  • Treating employees who are in similar situations consistently.

Finally, supervisors should be trained to avoid engaging in any unlawful retaliation against an employee. Retaliation can violate numerous federal and state laws, including those that prohibit employment discrimination. Supervisors should be aware of these laws and of what may constitute unlawful retaliation under them. In addition, supervisors should be instructed to consult with a human resources professional or other authority within the workplace before taking any adverse action that could be viewed as retaliatory.


As many supervisors know, employees who request time off work do not always specify that they could have a right to the time off under an applicable law, such as the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or a similar state leave law. Nevertheless, supervisors that receive employee requests for time off must ensure that they meet all obligations that may apply under these laws.

Likewise, supervisors must be able to recognize and respond appropriately when a request for time off is one that must be considered as a “reasonable accommodation” for disability under either the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or a similar state law.

An employer’s training program can address these issues by:

  • Specifying which leave and disability laws apply to the company;
  • Providing an overview of the employer’s obligations related to leave requests under the applicable laws and under the employer’s policies;
  • Using real-life examples to illustrate which types of words or phrases could trigger the employer’s obligations under the applicable laws;
  • Discussing how certain supervisor actions or inactions could be considered violations of the applicable laws; and
  • Providing and encouraging supervisors to regularly review any practical guidance available from the appropriate enforcement agencies.

For example, private employers that have 50 or more employees (and certain schools and public employers, regardless of size) should include information about leave requirements under the FMLA, which is enforced by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. According to this agency’s FMLA guidance, an employer’s obligations begin any time an employee’s leave request includes information indicating that it could be covered by the FMLA.

Employers that have 15 or more employees should also include information about the ADA, which is enforced by the EEOC. Under the EEOC’s ADA guidance on reasonable accommodation requirements, an employer has an obligation to begin an informal, interactive process any time an employee requests leave for a reason related to a medical condition.

A supervisor training program should also help ensure that supervisors understand the importance of avoiding retaliation claims by:

  • Keeping an employee’s history of leave or accommodation requests separate from any performance issues involving that employee;
  • Keeping any personal feelings about an employee’s leave request out of all conversations with the employee; and
  • Treating all similarly situated employees in a consistent manner.

In part two we will discuss confidentiality, documentation, and other useful compliance training for your management staff. If your group needs assistance with any compliance topics, contact us to speak to a consultant.