Discrimination & Harassment

It was only a few years ago that the phrases “unconscious bias” or “implicit bias” started making the rounds in the legal community.

I can trace the discussion on this blog to a 2014 guest post from a former law professor of mine, Kim Norwood, who talked about it in the context of her own experiences here.  I also talked about it in the context of a 2014 study that showed that married men with stay-at-home wives had negative attitudes towards working women.  

Implicit bias has gained steam over the last several years. Indeed, Professor Norwood came to our firm in 2015 to give a presentation on The Mischief Biases Play in Law and the Legal Profession.  Suffice to say, it was well received and she was asked back again for a further presentation.

All of this is a precursor to what I think may be the biggest development thus far in the mainstreaming of the “implicit bias” theory and training.

Earlier this week, Starbucks announced that it will close all 8000+ of its stores next month to conduct anti-bias training for its 175,000 employees.  My guess is that it is one of the biggest single-day training events of its kind attempted in the United States.

The open question is: Will such training work? 

According to The New York Times article, the answer remains unknown.  Some studies show their effectiveness. But in some instances, it can have a negative effect as well.

Other academics and experts on bias caution that anti-bias training is a sensitive exercise that can be ineffective or even backfire if handled incorrectly. Any training that involves explicitly telling people to set aside their biases is especially likely to fail, said Seth Gershenson, an economist at American University who has also studied anti-bias training, because it requires so much mental energy it can exhaust people.

Even with training, some said, it is exceedingly easy to revert to the original biases. “In the moment of stress, we tend to forget our training,” said Mark Atkinson, the chief executive of Mursion, which provides a simulation platform for training workers in skills like interpersonal interactions.

I’m eager to see how Starbucks continues to develop this. Its response to an earlier incident may be used as a role model to other companies who have had to deal with these types of issues. We should all be hoping its succeeds.

Earlier this week, the Judiciary Committee (by a 25-16 vote) approved of Senate Bill 132, being labelled by it’s proponents as the “Time’s Up” bill but covers both harassment and discrimination cases. I covered an announcement of this a while back.  

As the bill moves closer to consideration now to the state Senate, it’s time for employers to start paying attention to what’s in the bill.  The CBIA has expressed concerns about some aspects of the bill.

Here are a few highlights:

  • To require employers to provide every employee with information concerning the “illegality of sexual harassment and remedies available to victimes of sexual harassment”.
  • To require employers of three or more employees (currently set at 50) to provide two hours of sexual harassment prevention training and with such training being provided not just to supervisory employees, but all employees.
  • To eliminate affirmative defenses that employers otherwise have that: “(i) the claim of sexual harassment was properly investigated, immediate corrective action was taken and no act of sexual harassment subsequently occurred, (ii) the claim of sexual harassment was not reported to a respondent prior to the filing of a complaint with the commission, (iii) an employer has a policy of prohibiting sexual harassment or recently trained its employees on sexual harassment in accordance with subdivision (15) of section 46a-54, as amended by this act, or (iv) the sexual harassment was not severe or pervasive.”  These defenses would only be allowed to be introduced on the question of damages.
  • To prohibit employers from modifying the “conditions of employment” of the employee making the claim of sexual harassment when the employer takes “immediate corrective action”, unless employee agrees in writing to such a modification.
  • To allow the CHRO to order the promotion of an employee in response to a claim of discrimination.
  • To allow claims of discrimination that occur on or after October 1, 2018 to be subject to a new three-year statute of limitation, instead of the current 180 day requirement.
  • To allow punitive damages for discrimination claims to be awarded in some instances.
  • To allow lawsuits to be brought two years after the CHRO releases jurisdiction over a discrimination, instead of the 90 day requirement.

There’s more as well, so employers are best advised to review it and talk with their attorneys about the impact that this bill might have on their workplace.

From a procedural perspective, the change in the statute of limitations would be significant.

Take this example: Suppose an alleged discriminatory act took place on May 15, 2019.  An employee would then have until (approximately) May 15, 2022 to bring a CHRO charge.  The CHRO could investigate the claim for a while — say a year and release jurisdiction on May 15, 2023.  The employee could then have two additional years to bring suit in Court — taking it out to May 15, 2025.  Add another 18-24 months before a trial date, at best.

Ultimately, this could result in a claim being heard nearly eight years (or more!) after the alleged discrimination took place.

Supervisors may have long since left the company and evidence might not be available anymore for employers to defend themselves.  All told, these types of delays were exactly the type of issue that a shorter statute of limitations was designed to prevent.  Companies would be at a significant disadvantage in defending themselves, all the while damages continue to accrue.

This bill would also require the CHRO to renegotiate significantly large portions of the worksharing agreement in place with the EEOC.

There is certainly momentum for some type of action here; stay tuned to see what further modifications are made to this bill.

There’s been a lot in the news of late about “outrageous” provisions found in an separation agreement between an employer and an employee, like confidentiality.  Indeed, some proposed legislation would restrict the use of some provisions.  

So I thought it would be helpful to go over what we typically see in a separation agreement.

First a big caveat: My description of a “typical” agreement does not mean that these provisions are in every agreement or even that these provisions ought to be in some agreements. Each separation or settlement has differing facts that may make certain provisions more important than others. And some employers or employees negotiate differently.

In other words, there is not a one-size-fits-all to this and employers should definitely not attempt to do this without legal guidance.

One more caveat, back in 2009, I provided a link to a great checklist that existed at the time about key provisions to have in a separation agreement. Nearly 10 years later, it still holds up pretty well.  You could do a lot worse than rely on that.

So what are typical provisions?

  1.  Last Day of Employment
  2. Benefits Upon Separation of Employment
  3. A Release of all possible claims related to employment (maybe even broader) with lots of legalese
  4. Confidentiality of Agreement
  5. Nondisparagement of one or more of the parties
  6. No Admission of Liability
  7. No Obligation by Employer to Re-Hire
  8. Return of Property
  9. Affirmation of Any Prior Restrictive Covenants (such as Non-Compete periods)
  10. References or Removal of Negative Information from Personnel File
  11. Many more technical provisions regarding what the governing law is, indemnification in case of breach, incorporation provisions making sure this agreement supersedes prior agreements, and, OWBPA-compliant provisions if necessary.

So, before you read headlines or “expert” commentary expressing shock that a separation agreement contains a confidentiality provision, understand that typically these are sought by both an employer and employee.  There may be good reasons that both have for wanting to keep the reasons for the separation and any separation agreement private.

It happened again, last week.  An employer was sued.

Wait, what’s that? A new lawsuit gets filed EVERY day against employers?  (Actually, in federal court, at least 11885 employment lawsuits were filed in 2017. Far more than one a day.)

But last week, there were a bunch of headlines – a new sexual harassment lawsuit filed against a major Connecticut employer.

(I’m not going to mention it here for reasons that will become apparent in a second).

News organizations ate the new lawsuit up picking up scurrilous allegations that were even denied by some of the people involved.

This, of course, isn’t the first time that this happened — that is, news organizations publishing the fact that a lawsuit was filed.

Why? Is it really news?

Reporters would say yes, the public has a right to know.  And in fairness to them, a new lawsuit may have some newsworthiness.

But I’d argue that many reports about lawsuits get published for far simpler reasons — they’re easy to write about.  The facts are laid out in a complaint; all that’s really needed is a few quotes and a response from the employers and the story writes itself.

Typically, the news stories aren’t even written on the fly; a lawyer may “tip off” the reporter that the lawsuit is coming and offer “exclusive” interview to the reporter that coincides with the lawsuit.

At that point, the employer is left to say that it doesn’t comment on pending legal matters or that it’s still “investigating” the claims.

And even when the employer files its motion to dismiss, or answer, or actual responsive pleading, the press has long since moved on.

Employers must recognize this and be prepared to either respond to the press quickly, or figure out your plan ahead of time.

Communications expert Andrea Obston goes one step further and notes that with social media, your company’s story is being told — so you might as well get involved in the conversation.

In today’s on-line world, it’s easy for anyone to tell your story.  Don’t let them.  Tell it yourself.  Tell it authentically and tell it often.  If you don’t, expect someone else to do it for you – whether you like it or not.

Employment lawsuits are easy news. You should understand that by now.   Knowing what to do next may at least position your company as something different than just today’s punching bag.

Employment lawsuits can be more than just legal matters nowadays; the pressure of the online world can be huge. Understanding the stakes now in play are important for employers to understand as they defend against such lawsuits.

By now, you may have read about yesterday’s decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals that Title VII bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Connecticut is in that federal circuit (along with New York and Vermont).  You can download the decision in Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc., here. (You’ve been warned though — there are 163 pages to the various opinions!)

The decision talks a lot of “associational discrimination” and other academic theories of proving a case under Title VII; that’s beyond the practical aspects of this blog for employers but practitioners in the area should review the decision as a whole.

So what IS the practical impact on Connecticut employers? 

Not as much as you might first think.

Connecticut state law already bars employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

Indeed, last year, I wrote that the debate over whether federal law includes a bar against discrimination on sexual orientation was largely moot because of state law.

Yes, there are some slight differences; for example, Connecticut has an exception for “religious corporations” that I talked about in a prior post in 2014. How would that play out when compared with Title VII’s “ministerial exemption”.

The one change that can occur now is that employees can bring claims of sexual orientation discrimination to federal court instead of just state court.

But whether we will see that is an entirely different question. Historically, employees (and their attorneys) have preferred the looser rules of state court to bring claims of employment discrimination. It’s widely perceived that it is harder for employers to get motions for summary judgment granted in state court when compared with federal court.

This is also not the last we’ve heard about this issue; no doubt an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court will be coming sooner or later. Until then, employers in Connecticut should be aware now that the prohibitions against sexual orientation are now rooted in both federal and state law.

Last week, I posted about a proposed Governor’s bill that would expand the training requirements for some employers.

However, that appears to be just a small part of a wider political battle that is about to be raised.

Yesterday, a group of Senate Democrats proposed, according to a handout, the “Largest Overhaul in Modern Connecticut History of Sexual Harassment Laws” that would significantly alter the landscape for nearly all Connecticut employers.

They’ve titled their proposal the “Time’s Up Act: Combating Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault”.  

The bill has yet to be drafted, but the outlines are being shared by Senate Democrats and will be pursued first in the Judiciary Committee (not the Labor & Public Employee Committee as you might expect).

According to their handout, the proposed bill will contain the following relating to discrimination or harassment laws:

  • Require that any notice of sexual harassment remedies and policies by e-mailed to each employee at least once a year, in addition to the required posting.
  • Increase the fines that the CHRO can impose for failing to provide notice (currently at $250)
  • Require sexual harassment training to all employers with three or more employees (instead of the current 50 or more threshold)
  • Require training of all employees, not just supervisory employees with broader topics
  • “Give CHRO the resources it needs to go out into the community and conduct on-site trainings”
  • Increase the statute of limitations from 180 days to 2 years for not just harassment complaints, but all discrimination complaints
  • Eliminate the 90 day deadline after receiving a release from the CHRO to file a lawsuit but extend it to two years after a release from the CHRO.
  • Permit the CHRO to ask for injunctive relief for employers of 3 or more employees, not the current threshold of 50.
  • Allow for punitive damages in all discrimination and harassment complaints
  • Increase funding for the CHRO
  • Create a similar model to California in passing a Private Attorney General Act, which would allow litigants to, after giving notice to the CHRO, bring a claim for violations against himself or herself, but also against other employees as well.
  • Prohibit settlement agreements that prohibit a party from disclosing information regarding sexual harassment or sexual assault.

This is still in the early stages but expect to see a lot more about this in the weeks and months to come.  No doubt, the Connecticut Business and Industry Association will have something to say about this as well.

I’ll have more details as they become available.

The 2018 session of the General Assembly started last week and increasing workplace training is a top priority for passage.

Indeed, it is not surprising that we’re starting to see the first proposed legislation to address the number of harassment claims that have been making headlines the last six months.

Governor’s Bill 5043 sets up the following changes:

  • First, it would increase the number of employers that need to provide anti-harassment training — resetting the number of employees needed to fall under the statute from 50 to 15.
  • Second, the bill would also require all employees (not just supervisors and managers) to undergo two hours of what it calls “awareness and anti-harassment compliance training” and have that training updated every five years.
  • The training that now is just focused on sexual harassment prevention in the workplace, but would also be expanded to include all types of harassment—including that based on race, color, religious creed, age, sex, gender identity or expression, marital status, and national origin.
  • The training would also be required to include information about the employer’s policy against harassment, examples of the types of conduct that constitute and do not constitute harassment, strategies to prevent harassment, bystander intervention training and a discussion of “workplace civility” that shall include what is acceptable and expected behavior in the workplace.
  • The bill would require employers of three or more employees to continue to post information regarding all types of harassment and, on an annual basis, to “directly communicate such information and remedies to employees on an annual basis”.

My best guess is that this item of legislation will go through some additional tweaks to satisfy various constituencies, particularly because of the increased costs involved.

For example, expanding the training to all employees would create a massive new industry for training and, as the CBIA has said, a costly mandate as well.

There is more legislation coming down the pike in the employment law area.  This is just one of the items being floated so stay tuned.

Love is in the air. And in the workplace too.

But office romances have hit a 10-year-low, at least according to a new survey from CareerBuilder.com.  

Lest you think that office romances are rare – the survey showed that 36 percent of those surveyed had an office romance! Wow.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, a good deal of those romances (over 30 percent!) result in marriage.

So, who am I to quash a viable route to eternal happiness?

But, caselaw has shown that Valentine’s Day also leads to lawsuits. Plenty of them.

This week, I had the opportunity to appear on the Hostile Work Environment podcast where we address what can go wrong on Valentine’s Day.

Some of the cases I discuss are drawn from older blog posts on the subject. 

The main takeaway? Just ignore the holiday in the workplace.  By that I mean, no gifts, no flowers, and especially no Valentine’s Day cards.

Love may keep us to together, but love is a battlefield too. And in the workplace, love leads to lawsuits.

And trust me, no one writes love songs about lawsuits.

You can listen to the full podcast below.

Episode 14 – Santa Comes and Murders the Group with an Axe

 

Are you one of those people who thinks two is better than one? I know I am.

So, with that in mind, I’m pleased to announce that my lawfirm, Shipman & Goodwin has launched a new labor & employment law blog called “Employment Law Letter”.  The firm’s blog is an extension of the firm’s long-standing newsletter led, most recently, by my partner Brian Clemow.

And when I mean long-standing, I mean 40 years worth of production. That’s a publication record worth recognizing!

As announced by my fellow partner, Gabe Jiran, the new blog will also provide frequent and timely articles on a variety of topics as they occur.  In addition, the blog will post announcements of upcoming seminars and events, including my firm’s popular CLE webinar series.

One of the first posts of that blog highlights a CLE program that I’m doing this Tuesday via webinar entitled “Are You at Risk? An In-Depth Look at Workplace Sexual Harassment Prevention and Company Culture.”  It’s not too late to sign up for this FREE webinar here.

Never fear as well – this blog will continue just fine.  We’ll have a little less “guest posts” from my colleagues here now that there’s an additional platform for their posts and I’ll also be cross-posting over there from time to time.  But as with posts about my ABA involvement, etc., this blog will continue to share my perspectives and build from there.

See? Two really IS better than one.  Be sure to subscribe to Employmentlawletter.com today.  

Last week, I had the opportunity to again represent Connecticut as the State Delegate for the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates at the Vancouver ABA Midyear Meeting.

Among the resolutions debated was Resolution 302 which “urges all employers, and specifically all employers in the legal profession, to adopt and enforce policies and procedures that prohibit, prevent, and promptly redress harassment and retaliation based on sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and the intersectionality of sex with race and/or ethnicity.”

Although it lacks some of the specificity found in “best practices” that I’ve highlighted elsewhere, it does establish some basics for employers to use.  Some should be well known but they are worth reiterating.

What are some of the policies and procedures should have?  For example:

  • dissemination to all employees, management and directors of a clear statement that harassment, including harassment based on sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and the intersectionality of sex with race and/or ethnicity will not be tolerated;
  • confirmation that the policy applies to conduct by directors, officers, management at all levels, supervisors, employees, and third parties, at or in connection with any work related function or against anyone protected by this policy irrespective of where that conduct occurs.

For more on the ABA resolution, check out this article from the ABA Journal from last week as well.

Kudos to the ABA for taking a timely stand and to my other delegates from Connecticut at the Vancouver meeting including Austin Berescik-Johns, Livia Barndollar, Linda Randell, Barry Hawkins, Steve Curley, Karen DeMeola and Judge Alvin W. Thompson for their contributions as well.

If you have any questions on what else occurred at the ABA meeting, please feel free to send me an e-mail at the contact link above.