Quick Guide to Improve Your Employment Law Training - Outside Counsel Interview with Jen Colvin

Even though most companies are aware they need to train managers and employees on non-discrimination, anti-harassment, medical leave, and a host of other employment laws, creating engaging employment law training can be daunting for corporate counsel and HR. 

Today we're interviewing Jen Colvin from Ogletree Deakins to find out how to overcome those challenges. Jen is a former Illinois ALJ who now advises companies large and small from her base in Ogletree's Chicago office. She's a brilliant labor and employment attorney who truly understands the challenges faced by corporate counsel and HR. 

In this interview, you'll find out how to get management buy-in, save time and create engaging employment law training without reinventing the wheel. Jen gives some solid practical advice for busy corporate counsel hoping to improve their company's training. 

IHO: Why did you choose employment law for your practice?

Jen: Employment law touches every person.  So many people identify with their careers and work life is so important to them. I felt that focusing on labor and employment was a way to impact peoples’ lives on a daily basis.

IHO: Why is it important to train employees on employment law compliance?

Jen: Compliance with employment laws impacts every aspect of a company’s operation. It is important to train employees in order to avoid costly litigation. However, failing to train employees can lead to not only to the possibility of costly litigation, it can also lead to a work environment that has an adverse effect on employee morale, which can in turn jeopardize productivity, which may lead to a loss of customers and loss of overall goodwill towards the company.    

IHO: How can corporate counsel get buy-in from management to take up employees' valuable time with training?

Jen: Stressing the importance that the company places on training, as well as how training effects employee morale and overall productivity can help get buy-in from management.  For management that is truly resistant to training, reminding managers/supervisors that their own performance can be assessed based on the compliance of the employees they manage can be helpful, as is reminding managers/supervisors that there are some employment laws where a supervisor/manager can be held personally liable for their actions or lack thereof. 

IHO: If you had to list the top 3 most important employment law topics for corporate counsel to focus on for employee training, what would they be and why?

Jen: Important employment law topics are constantly changing and evolving and what may be generally a hot topic may not be relevant for a specific company. However, there are three constants that involve separate employee groups where I think training is important.  First, it is important to train all employees on the company’s anti-discrimination and harassment policies, what conduct can be considered harassment, and how to report it. Second, it is important to train managers/supervisors on their role in: understanding and carrying out company policies; avoiding litigation; positive employee  relations and employee satisfaction; and administering discipline in a fair and consistent manner. Third, it is important to train human resources on conducting proper workplace investigations.  

IHO: There's so much information on employment laws. How do you know what to present and what to ignore?

Jen: When I’m asked to provide employment law training for a company, the most important thing to do before the presentation is to have a candid conversation with the company (whether it is with corporate counsel or human resources) on what issues the company is having.  What types of complaints has the company seen recently and what are the concerns for the future. I can then work with the company to tailor training to the issues that are most important to it. 

IHO: What's the 1 tool you can't live without for legal training?

Jen: A sense of humor. It is important to be serious and convey the necessary information in training but it is also important to keep your audience interested and involved. I find a sense of humor and anecdotal stories and examples are helpful.

IHO: Walk me through the step-by-step process you use to prepare for legal training presentations

Jen: First, I meet with the company to discuss what topics are important to it and that it wants included in the training.  Second, I think about the best manner in which to conduct the training – small groups, large groups, through a PowerPoint, or in some other manner.  Third, I think about the order of the presentation and what scenarios/video clips/recent news stories/recent case law might work for the topic.  Fourth, I put the presentation together and then revise it for substance, presentation flow, and allotted time.  Fifth, I run through the presentation in rough form several times to make sure I am comfortable with it and am ready to present.  

IHO: What are some successful presentation tactics for engaging your audience?

Jen: Crafting presentations in a manner that draws the audience in is key. People are such visual learners and are used to being entertained.  I have found that it is helpful to incorporate video clips, when possible, in presentations.  It may be showing a certain employment/workplace scene from a movie or a television show and then talking about what in the scene was harassing or inappropriate for the workplace. Another helpful tactic is to talk about the law or the company’s policy and then to set up a specific scenario with a question where the presenter asks the audience to answer. This can be done by providing answers in a multiple choice format and asking the audience to answer through a show of hands, or by asking a question that requires a detailed answer and then calling on an audience member.

IHO: What was the best legal training presentation you've ever given, and why was it so successful?

Jen: The best legal training presentation I have ever given was on the topic of workplace investigations.  A colleague and I created scenes for each stage of an investigation (the initial complaint; the interview of the complainant; the interview of the alleged harasser; the interviews of the witnesses; the meeting with the complainant to discuss the findings; and a cross-examination of the investigator at trial).  Each scene was purposely drafted in a manner where there was little humor, and where somethings were done properly and some were not done correctly.  The scenes were live acted and after each scene, we asked the audience what went well, what was incorrect, and what would they have done differently in that situation. Then we discussed what should have actually happened.  This presentation was so successful because it provided all of the information needed to perform a proper workplace investigation in a manner that drew the audience in and required them to pay attention and participate throughout the process.    

IHO: What are some time-saving tips for busy attorneys preparing for legal training presentations?

Jen: Preparing for legal training presentations should not be something on which you skimp.  You want to make sure you are presenting the most up-to-date information in the most efficient way possible.  That being said, busy attorneys generally do not need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to training.  If you have co-workers at you firm or in your legal department, they may have previously presented training on the topic and you can utilize that presentation as a starting point for revisions.  If you have been asked to train on a topic on which you may not be familiar, there are a variety of blogs (like this great one), newsletters, and other resources on the internet that can help you quickly become generally familiar with a topic.  

IHO: If a new corporate counsel called you to ask for advice on training their company's employees, and you only had a few minutes to give them your best tip, what would you say?

Jen: Hire Ogletree Deakins to do the training!  If hiring outside counsel is not an option, I’d make sure to advise corporate counsel to know what topics are important to the company.  Again, what issues has the company seen or what complaints have been raised to manager/supervisors and/or human resources, and what are areas of future concern.  Focus on training employees on those topics in a manner that educates and engages the audience.  

IHO: Thank you so much for the great answers, Jen!

Note from Joel: If you have any questions for Jen on employment law training (or any other employment law topic), please contact her at (312) 558-1234 or jennifer.colvin@ogletreedeakins.com. 

Jennifer Colvin's practice is focused on labor and employment litigation. You can view her profile here