Two Tough Lessons on Training

New commercial truck drivers must cover thousands of miles with a trainer before they can work on their own. For women, that means ThinkstockPhotos-57533192spending weeks in close quarters with a boss who most likely is a man.

What could go wrong?

A pair of recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission cases suggests the situation is every bit as risky — both for drivers and employers — as you might think.

The cases involve two trucking companies that got in trouble over sexual harassment of female trainees. One escaped major sanctions and may even recover legal costs from the agency, thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that lawyers call a victory for employers.

The other … let’s just say it didn’t go well.

That company, Missouri-based Prime Inc., is one of the nation’s largest long-haul truck companies. After a female trainee charged the company with sexual harassment and the EEOC sued, the company in 2004 adopted a new procedure: women trainees were paired only with female trainers.

But in the end, the new procedure apparently did far more harm than good.

Because the company had only five women trainers, according to the EEOC, women trainees had to wait a year or more to get in. Men, however, were accepted immediately.

In 2011 the EEOC sued again, and U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Harpool didn’t have much trouble concluding the training practice was discriminatory. In April he signed a consent decree ordering the company to pay $2.9 million to 68 women who had applied to the company’s training program.

The settlements, which include back pay and compensatory damages, ranged from about $29,000 to nearly $92,000 each. The company also agreed to hire all the women immediately. In addition, the company paid $250,000 to another female driver trainee who had brought the complaint to the EEOC.

On top of that, the company — which finally ended its same-sex training policy in 2013, two years after the EEOC filed suit — promised not to reinstitute the practice.

Was Prime’s 2004 training policy a well-intentioned response to the first complaint that accidentally led to a second one? Or a passive-aggressive jab at women who had complained? In a final order in the case dated May 26, the judge says he can’t tell.

“While Prime’s same-gender training policy was illegal, misguided, and ill-advised, the court is not willing to find … [it] was evil or malicious,” Harpool writes.

The other trucking company fared better in its battle with the EEOC. On May 19 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously found that Iowa-based CRST Van Expedited Inc. may be entitled to $4.5 million in legal expenses it incurred battling the agency over another sexual-harassment case.

The case stems from a 2005 claim by a female driver trainee who said she was sexually harassed. Two years later the EEOC filed a class-action suit on behalf of 250 women whom it said had been victimized. Most of those plaintiffs were dismissed, however, after the court found the EEOC had not properly investigated their claims.

Employment lawyers lauded the Supreme Court’s ruling as a victory for employers.  The ruling “has made clear that a defendant may be entitled to recover attorneys’ fees even absent a victory on the merits,” write Lindsey M. Marcus and Michael A. Warner Jr., partners in the employment law practice of Franczek Radelet in Chicago.

Though the outcomes were very different, the lesson for folks in HR is the same: Training, like trucking, can be a risky business.