The Dialogue, a online conversation between yours truly and a prominent employee-side attorney, Nina Pirrotti, returns today with another installment — this time tackling the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace.   For prior installments, check out these posts here and here.  As for the promised redesign and relaunch of the blog, it’s nearly complete. Can’t wait to share it with you soon.    

chionDan: Last time we promised to tackle a serious topic: Pizza. Given that you’re based on New Haven, surely you have thoughts on the subject. Pepe’s? Sally’s? Modern? Or something else? 

But in the meantime, I wanted to tackle a really serious topic and get your thoughts on the state of sexual harassment claims.  It feels like we’re hearing more about it of late.  It’s been about two months since Bill O’Reilly was fired from Fox News amid allegations of sexual harassment, and the news this month is of a major shakeup at Uber in light of an internal investigation looking at workplace culture.  Indeed, the Uber CEO just announcement his resignation yesterday! We won’t get statistics out from the agencies that receive harassment complaints (EEOC and CHRO), but anecdotally, it feels like we’re seeing more awareness of the issue and more questions from employers.  What are you seeing from the employee-perspective this year?

nina_t_pirrotti1-150x150Nina: This is the bone-chilling reality and the reason why, even if I won the lottery tomorrow I would never give up my day job:  Sexual harassment continues to infect the workplace at the same alarming levels as it did in the days of Mad Men.  Indeed, the only aspects of it that have changed over the years is that now  men of power have much greater variety in the manner of delivery.  So in addition to groping, fondling and yes, even raping women in the workplace ala Don Draper and his C-Suite buddies, men of power these days are also sexting, Snapchatting  and otherwise exploiting social media to prime, intimidate and conquer their victims.  Hell, the president of the United States is even doing it!

Long before a SunTrust recruiter made headlines when he sent a nude photo of himself to a female prospective hire, exposing his genitals and inviting her to “play,” my client, a factory worker who spoke little English, endured daily groping and sexual taunts from her assembly line supervisor.  The smoking gun in that case?  A naked photo of himself that he texted her during work hours.   That case settled quickly, and despite her paltry salary, very, very well.

The main problem I encounter is, even if by some miracle such women summon the courage to come to me (the factory worker, for example, cancelled two appointments before she showed up at my office) , they often are petrified to take it to the next level.   Even when they have damning evidence, these men have such a hold on them that they fear for their jobs and even their physical safety if they come forward.   I will never forget the time I had to meet with a client at an undisclosed location far away from her workplace and my office to consult with her on a case in which the powerful, rainmaker chief of her department was subjecting her to unrelenting sexual harassment and she had the “goods” (graphic e-mails) to prove it!  She, an otherwise rational, grounded person, was convinced he would discover what she was doing and harm her.

Is your workplace more like a locker room?
Is your workplace more like a locker room?

What makes matters worse is that too often these victims’ worst fears are reinforced by employers who fail to take swift, decisive action when sexual harassment allegations are brought to light. This is far more apt to happen when the predator is a money maker for the employer.    In the case of the harassment by the department chief, for example, several other women had complained about his conduct to no avail.  Such non-response packs two punches.  First, it emboldens the predator who now  has first-hand knowledge he can act with impunity.  Second, it chills fresh victims, like my client, from taking action to protect themselves.   At some point, the hope for we plaintiffs’ employment lawyers, though, is that the lid explodes off the boiling pot.   We have seen this time and again in the media with Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes and the folks at Uber et al and, closer to home, that fearful employee who was sexually harassed by the “untouchable” chief ended up convincing four other employees to come forward (three of which were senior executives) and that case settled for well over $1 million even though the hospital finally terminated the chief and all five employees  kept their jobs.

I know your clients would never face such a predicament because they are getting advice from the best, Dan!  Perhaps you could share with us, though, how you counsel those employers who learn that an otherwise valuable employee is being accused of sexual harassment?

As for Pepes, Sally,Modern, Bar or others go, they are all great but I prefer making my own.  The secret is in my sauce . . .

Dan:  Well that’s a lot to respond to! But I don’t think it’s a fair argument to elevate rape (a horrific violent crime) into an analysis of sexual harassment cases in general.   No legitimate employer or their counsel is going to countenance sexual assault (much less outright sexual harassment either.)  Everyone agrees such conduct is wrong.    Continue Reading The Dialogue: Sex Harassment in the Workplace — Still an Issue, but How Much?

roadIf you had a million dollars (or more) to investigate your culture, what would you find out? (Music fans may appreciate the classic “If I Had a Million Dollars” song from the Barenaked Ladies. You’re welcome.)

Well, Uber engaged a lawfirm, Covington & Burling, and the former Attorney General Eric Holder to do just that — interviews with over 200 people, reviews of over 3 million documents — and discovered a lot.  It isn’t pretty.

Thankfully, the firm released its recommendations for all the world to see. In doing so, the report actually can serve as a bit of a road map of what to do at your company if you have some similar issues.  All for free.

You can and should review the report here.  There are some specifics that won’t be helpful — like allocating the responsibilities of the CEO.  But there are many others which show what the best practices are at companies in 2017.  Here are a few to get you started:

  • Use Performance Reviews to Hold Senior Leaders Accountable.  This recommendation is straightforward, but suggests that companies should have metrics that are tied to “improving diversity, responsiveness to employee complaints, employee satisfaction, and compliance.”  If you don’t hold senior leaders accountable, things will fall through the cracks.
  • Increase the Profile of [] Head of Diversity and the Efforts of His Organization.   This recommendation suggests something that may come as a surprise to some companies but reflects a growing shift in corporate culture, that is, that an “empowered senior leader who is responsible for diversity and inclusion is key to the integrity of” a company’s efforts.  Note the dual emphasis. As the report later explains, “It is equally important that the role address both diversity and inclusion. Diversity is generally viewed as focusing on the presence of diverse employees based on religion, race, age, sexual orientation, gender, and culture. Inclusion, on the other hand, focuses not just on the presence of diverse employees, but on the inclusion and engagement of such employees in all aspects of an organization’s operations.”
  • Human Resources Record-Keeping.  With the buzz about data, this recommendation reflections the growing wisdom that a company should have “appropriate tools, including complaint tracking software, to keep better track of complaints, personnel records and employee data.”  More than that, a company should “emphasize the importance of record-keeping to all Human Resources staff, and impose consequences for failure to adhere to record-keeping requirements.”  In other words, no longer should HR be viewed as secondary to a company’s mission. It’s front and center.
  • Training, Training, and Training.  I’m cheating a bit on this one because the report actually breaks down training at various levels, but the need for training is emphasized for senior leaders, HR staff, and managers.  And more than that, the company should also “require employees who routinely interview candidates…to undergo training on interviewing skills, conducting inclusive interviews and unconscious bias.”

There’s much more to the report, including additional suggestions specifically on diversity and inclusion efforts.   It’s a helpful roadmap for all companies.