Human Resources (HR) Compliance

Employment law lawyers are asked to review a lot of employment decisions.

If we’re lucky, we’re brought in early in the process when the decision isn’t yet final and where our input can be useful.

Other times though, we’re asked to opine on decisions after the fact.

And truth is, it’s really pretty easy to Monday morning quarterback employment decisions.  Because there is sometimes something that wasn’t thought of before the decision was made.

Often, it may not be important. The employer would have still made the same decision if something else was looked it.

Had you known that there was a law protecting free speech in the workplace, would you still have disciplined the employee for putting up a post on Facebook about his working conditions?

Many employers can’t afford an in-house attorney to bounce their decisions off.

So, for those companies, here are five questions to get you thinking BEFORE you make an employment decision.

(Usual caveat: This isn’t advice, isn’t intended to be comprehensive, and isn’t a substitute for actual legal counsel.)

  1. Is the decision fair? If you can’t answer this question honestly, start over. You’re doing it wrong. Fairness matters to judges, juries, and other employees.
  2. Is the employee going to be surprised by the decision? Good management principles dictate that employees should know what is going on. If you’re terminating an employee for poor performance, did the employee know his or her performance was in jeopardy?
  3. Is the decision well documented? Is there backup to support the decision and is the rationale clear from them? And is the decision being properly communicated to the employee too?
  4. Are there any laws that are implicated by the decision?  This is one area that is tough to fake.  You probably know you can’t fire someone because of their age, but what if you are trying to save money; can you fire the highest paid employee who also happens to be the oldest?
  5. Is there anything else going on that should be taken into consideration? For example, did the employee just return from maternity leave? Has the employee been asking for an accommodation?

These five questions won’t solve all your employment law issues.

But it should give you a head start on figuring out what other questions you should be asking and whether the decision you are about to make is one that you’ll be happy with down the road.

Recently, I had the opportunity to see Rags, a new revival now running at the classic Goodspeed Opera House.

I don’t often do theater reviews on this site, but I give it a thumbs up.

The musical tells the story of Jewish immigrants coming to the Lower East Side just after the turn of the century.

They experience outright discrimination and difficult working conditions.

So much so, that they end up even participating in a labor strike asking for better working conditions.

Of course, as an employment lawyer, I’m always looking for a good story to relate.

The musical obviously has undertones of today’s political environment, where refugees are facing barriers to entry from certain countries.

Workplace laws actually limit what employers should be asking in the interview process about immigration status.  And even when a Form I-9 is being process, an employer cannot reject valid documents or insist on additional documentation too.

And it can’t target certain people either.

The EEOC recaps it here:

For example, an employer cannot require only those who the employer perceives as “foreign” to produce specific documents, such as Permanent Resident (“green”) cards or Employment Authorization Documents. Employees are allowed to choose which documents to show for employment eligibility verification from the Form I-9 Lists of Acceptable Documents. Employers should accept any unexpired document from the Lists of Acceptable Documents so long as the document appears reasonably genuine on its face and relates to the employee.

Federal law also prohibits employers from conducting the Form I-9 and E-Verify processes before the employee has accepted an offer of employment.

According to the EEOC, “applicants may be informed of these requirements in the pre-employment setting by adding the following statement on the employment application”:

In compliance with federal law, all persons hired will be required to verify identity and eligibility to work in the United States and to complete the required employment eligibility verification form upon hire.”

I’ve always been a fan of learning from history. With a musical like Rags, you can get many employment law lessons in one.

Probably not the endorsement you will see from other theater critics, but you work with what you have.

Are you looking for something new to end the year with?

Then I have two quick links to share with you this morning.

First, on December 7 from noon to 1 pm (ET, of course), I, along with Eric Meyer (The Employer Handbook Blog), Jeff Nowak (FMLA Insights), Jon Hyman (Ohio Employer’s Law Blog), Robin Shea (Employment & Labor Insider), and our fearless moderator, Suzanne Lucas (Evil HR Lady) will present The 2017 Employment Law Year in Review.

The event is free, but space is limited. Register now for our one-hour recap of all the big employment-law and HR-compliance news of 2017, along with some practical tips to help you prepare your workplace for 2018.

Click here to register:  https://register.gotowebinar.com/register/5767568894289723906

Second, I’ve gotten an early listen to a brand-new podcast, entitled “Hostile Work Environment.” Set up by two employment lawyers who have a great sense of humor and a terrific ability to tell a story, the podcast shares various cases with facts that are too fantastic to make up.

You can download it at all the usual podcast locations. Worth a listen if you’re an HR type or employment lawyer.

The supervisor did it.

Yep, you’ve concluded that he sent unwanted texts to his subordinate telling her she looked “beautiful.”  Maybe even stopped by her hotel room unannounced one night at a conference for a “nightcap”.

While the subordinate’s career does not appear to have been harmed in the legal sense (i.e. there’s no “tangible employment action”), you’ve concluded that there was something “inappropriate” that happened.

(And let’s state the obvious: harm can exist even outside the “tangible employment action” context — that’s an issue for another post.)

So, back the the issue of the day — something “inappropriate” happened; maybe even something that meets the legal definition of “sexual harassment”.

What then?

Firing? Perhaps.

But what if you conclude that a lesser type of sanction is warranted?  Can you do that? If so, what’s the standard?

In cases where there has been no tangible employment action taken, the EEOC has actually set forth in its guidance a whole discussion that says that firing is but one possibility.  What’s important is that the remedial measures should be designed to:

  • Stop the harassment;
  • Correct its effect on the employee; and,
  • Ensure that the harassment does not recur.

The EEOC’s guidance notes that these remedial measures “need not be those that the employee requests or prefers, as long as they are effective.”

Moreover, “in determining disciplinary measures, management should keep in mind that the employer could be found liable if the harassment does not stop. At the same time, management may have concerns that overly punitive measures may subject the employer to claims such as wrongful discharge, and may simply be inappropriate.”

The EEOC suggests that the employer balance the competing concerns and that disciplinary measures should be proportional to the seriousness of the offense.

What does that mean?

If the harassment was minor, the EEOC suggests, such as a small number of “off-color” remarks by an individual with no prior history of similar misconduct, then counseling and an oral warning might be all that is necessary.

On the other hand, if the harassment was severe or persistent, then suspension or discharge may be appropriate.

And importantly, remedial measures also should correct the effects of the harassment. In the EEOC’s words, “such measures should be designed to put the employee in the position s/he would have been in had the misconduct not occurred.”

The EEOC provides various examples of measures to stop the harassment and ensure that it does not recur.  These include:

  • oral or written warning or reprimand;
  • transfer or reassignment;
  • demotion;
  • reduction of wages;
  • suspension;
  • discharge;
  • training or counseling of harasser to ensure that s/he understands why his or her conduct violated the employer’s anti-harassment policy; and
  • monitoring of harasser to ensure that harassment stops.

As for examples of measures to correct the effects of the harassment, these include:

  • restoration of leave taken because of the harassment;
  • expungement of negative evaluation(s) in employee’s personnel file that arose from the harassment;
  • reinstatement;
  • apology by the harasser;
  • monitoring treatment of employee to ensure that s/he is not subjected to retaliation by the harasser or others in the work place because of the complaint; and,
  • correction of any other harm caused by the harassment (e.g., compensation for losses).

How does this apply in the real world?

Jon Hyman of the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog, highlighted a case several years back where the employer didn’t terminate the offending supervisor on the first go around, but rather gave them a last chance.

Unfortunately, the employer didn’t follow through when the supervisor STILL engaged in harassment.  The case, Engel v. Rapid City School District, is worth a read to show how an employer’s reasonableness the first go around, can be used against it when it doesn’t follow through.

The EEOC’s guidance is a helpful guide to employers in navigating these issues.  The employer should look to the particular circumstances of any matter and determine what punishment is appropriate in that particular matter.

Perhaps it will conclude that firing is appropriate.

But if it concludes, based on an analysis of the entirety of the situation, that something less than that is appropriate too, the EEOC’s guidance can be a useful guidepost for that determination.

With a new wave of sex harassment complaints making headlines, there is also a bit of reflection that should happen at workplaces and the lawfirms that counsel them.

One area that we can evaluate is whether the training that is provided is effective.

A report yesterday from NPR concluded that training is just not working at many workplaces. 

The primary reason most harassment training fails is that both managers and workers regard it as a pro forma exercise aimed at limiting the employer’s legal liability.

For those of us who have been paying attention, this isn’t new.  I know that for the trainings I give, I try to have them be engaging with discussions of different fact scenarios being discussed.

But I’ve wondered whether we could be doing more.

Indeed, the EEOC issued a report last year highlighting the problems with existing training programs.

In its executive summary, it noted two big issues with the current model of training:

  • Training Must Change. Much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool – it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability. We believe effective training can reduce workplace harassment, and recognize that ineffective training can be unhelpful or even counterproductive. However, even effective training cannot occur in a vacuum – it must be part of a holistic culture of non-harassment that starts at the top. Similarly, one size does not fit all: Training is most effective when tailored to the specific workforce and workplace, and to different cohorts of employees. Finally, when trained correctly, middle-managers and first-line supervisors in particular can be an employer’s most valuable resource in preventing and stopping harassment.
  • New and Different Approaches to Training Should Be Explored. We heard of several new models of training that may show promise for harassment training. “Bystander intervention training” – increasingly used to combat sexual violence on school campuses – empowers co-workers and gives them the tools to intervene when they witness harassing behavior, and may show promise for harassment prevention. Workplace “civility training” that does not focus on eliminating unwelcome or offensive behavior based on characteristics protected under employment non-discrimination laws, but rather on promoting respect and civility in the workplace generally, likewise may offer solutions.”

Connecticut requires harassment training; I’ve talked about the requirements in some prior posts (check this one out from 2010, for example.)  But employers who have just gone through the motions, aren’t doing enough as we’ve now seen.

As we continue to work to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace, having an effective policy is only part of the solution.

Making sure the training we provide to employees is helpful is obviously a part as well — and something that may have been overlooked in the past.

But finding that perfect solution to training still seems elusive.

Did you ever have an employee post a status update from his termination meeting with HR?

I wrote about it a few years ago.  It seemed shocking then, and if anything, we’ve only seemed to be shocked more and more as each new tweet or blog post gets distributed with some outrageous behavior from an employee (or sometimes an employer!).

It used to be that companies would have weeks, if not days, to respond to publicity.  Now, it’s hours or even minutes.

Companies want to preserve their culture and reputation — and their corresponding products and services — more than ever. One misstep can get the online outrage machine going.  heck, even McDonalds’ got into a online snafu when it released (and then promptly sold out of) a unique retro szechuan sauce.

This Thursday, my colleague Jarad Lucan and I will be talking about these issues at our annual Labor & Employment Fall Seminar.  It’s nearly sold out, but you can still see about registering here.

The program session is entitled: Culture Shock: Preserving and Protecting Your Company’s Culture and Reputation in the Digital Age.

And the description is as follows:

In today’s social-media-obsessed digital age, your company and its culture may be put on display for the world to see in mere moments. Whether it’s a Google engineer’s memo claiming gender differences, the sexual harassment scandals at Fox News or the Weinstein Companies, social media rants by employees, or employees participating in hate riots, it has never been more incumbent upon employers to address these issues immediately and appropriately. This session will review state and federal laws and provide employers with steps they can take to create and foster positive company culture and mitigate legal risks.

Of course, it goes without saying that some cultures that have been exposed to the harsh light of social media deserve to be discarded.  Over 20 employees were dismissed at Uber following a detailed sexual harassment investigation into some 215 claims.

Come join us this Thursday and hear about other stories of employees (and employers) behaving badly online and elsewhere.

 

A while back, I had a good discussion with a colleague on a topic with no real firm answers.

No, it wasn’t on whether the Yankees are better franchise than the Red Sox.  The answer to that is unequivocally yes.  (Sorry, Sox fans.)

Rather: When is a employee-related issue a legal one? Or alternatively, when can human resources handle the issue on it’s own?

What comes to mind at first is the old Justice Potter Stewart quote of, “I know it when I see it” but that seems unsatisfying.

For some smaller employers, the answer may lean more heavily towards “legal” in part because there may not be an in-house human resources professional to call on.

But on the flip side, there are some other employers that might rely heavily (perhaps overly so) on their HR contacts to handle matters, trying to avoid unnecessary legal expenses.

What I’ve concluded is what I’ve started with — there are no real answers to the question.

But I can outline a few (non-exclusive) times when a lawyer should probably get involved.

  1. You get a letter from a lawyer threatening legal action on behalf of an employee or, in the case of a non-compete, from a former employer.  Pretty self-evident; lawyer = legal issue.  I’m going to not even dwell on the obvious: an actual lawsuit being filed means an attorney ought to be contacted.
  2. You get a notice from a state or federal agency investigating wage/hour laws, anti-discrimination laws, workplace safety issues, or labor union-related issued. Anything from the DOL, CHRO, EEOC, OSHA, or NLRB (to name a few) has the potential to be a big deal. Things you say there can be used against you too.  The earlier the better.
    1. But unemployment compensation claims may not always rise to that level.  Some employers handle unemployment claims and appeals internally.  For those situations, it depends on the complexity of the situation.
  3. You have to conduct an investigation into a workplace issue, such as sexual harassment, AND you may want that investigation to be privileged and confidential.  Again, HR may be able to conduct a whole host of minor investigations but there are going to be some that involve sensitive issues, or perhaps raise company-wide concerns. Bring counsel involved and let them help to manage the investigation.
  4. You have a complex issue that doesn’t have a clear legal answer.  It’s pretty well-settled now that employers need to engage in interactive discussions with an employee regarding reasonable accommodations that they may need.  Qualified HR can handle those discussions.  But suppose the employee is injured on job, is out on workers’ compensation, has exhausted FMLA time and needs additional time off — what then?

But I’m interested hearing from other lawyers or human resources personnel. When is an issue a legal one and when is HR perfectly capable of addressing it? Leave your best tips in the comments below.

“Let’s engage in a Halloween-type party where everybody would be having sex.”

Or perhaps, “So, are you going to wear a bikini for your Halloween costume?”

What is it about Halloween that brings out the creep factor in the workplace?

The first quote is from a real district court case earlier this year which documented a series of alleged comments made relating to a sexual harassment complaint.

(If you’re scratching your head at the reference to a “Halloween-type” party, I’m right there with you.)

The second is from a different case that is no less offensive in its descriptions of pervasive inappropriate conduct in the workplace.

(And, as if you needed confirmation, Princess Leia in a bikini from Return of the Jedi is not appropriate in the workplace, however cool Princess Leia is.)

Now, long time readers may recall a 2008 post about the perils of costumes in the workplace, and another post in 2010 about the perils of enabling sexual harassment when it comes to Halloween.

And yet, it continues.

Suzanne Lucas (a/k/a Evil Hr Lady) recently posted some tips about hosting an Office Halloween party.  Among them:

Costumes shouldn’t make fun of other cultures, the word “sexy” shouldn’t be attached to any workplace costume and the gore should be kept to a minimum. Remember, the goal is to have fun, not to offend. If you want to dress up as a sexy zombie, save that for your own Halloween party with personal friends.

But here’s my simple advice, be afraid. Be very very afraid. There are just way too many bad things that happen on Halloween with far more “tricks” than “treats”.

I realize that sounds like a no-fun lawyer, but how many more sexual harassment cases from Halloween do we really want or need? Do I need to keep writing these posts each Halloween?

One of the interesting strains to come out of the new round of publicity surrounding sexual harassment is a renewed focus on mandatory arbitration provisions.

And it comes from an unexpected source: former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson.

Indeed, Carlson recently gave an interview with former ESPN producer and self-titled “Commander-in-She” Valerie Gordon that may have slipped under radar in which she talks about such provisions.

She notes that mandatory or “forced” arbitration provisions enable sexual harassment to exist under the radar.

I’m doing some advocacy work on Capitol Hill, working on gathering bipartisan support to take the secrecy out of arbitration.  You know the forced arbitration in employment contracts makes these things secret.  We have to stop the silence around it.

In another recent interview, Carlson suggested that these arbitration provisions are often “in the fine print” and not focused on when people start a new job.  She’s talked about it during Senate press conferences this year as well.

I’ll be interested in reading more about Carlson’s perspective in her new book being released today.

Carlson’s message should be well taken by employers; if employers are using these arbitration provisions merely as a means to allow a system of harassment to continue, then shame on them.

But here’s the issue: As with most things employment law related, it’s far more nuanced.

There are times when arbitration makes sense for BOTH the employer and employee. Litigation is expensive — very expensive, some of my clients would say — and is filled with uncertainty and time-consuming drama.  I talked more about this in a 2014 post.

Arbitration can be less expensive and can allow both sides to be heard by a neutral third party much more quickly and effectively than a court system.

And yes, it avoids some publicity but again, that can benefit employees too.

By filing in arbitration, rather than court, an employee’s claims won’t be public and won’t seen by future employers as a potential lawsuit waiting to happen.

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to review this once more in a trio of consolidated cases, including whether employers can force employees to sign away rights to pursue a class actions.

And we shall see if the Connecticut General Assembly revisits the issue in the upcoming session in January 2018.  Until then, employers should continue to monitor developments in this area and figure out if mandatory arbitration provisions are right for your business.

 

Sometimes, government is thought of as the enforcer of rules.  But sometimes, the government is also in the business of helping businesses too.

The latest example of this is an Employer Resource Guide put out a few weeks ago by the Connecticut Department of Labor. You can download it directly here.  

According to its introduction:

This employer resource guide was created to educate all employers on the wide array of programs, services, and incentives available in Connecticut. This guide will be  periodically updated, and automatically emailed to all registered employers in CTHires, ( www.cthires.com), the Department of Labor’s no cost online job bank. In addition, a link to the resource guide will be available on the Department of Labor’s website, http://www.ctdol.state.ct.us/employerresourceguide.pdf.

For some larger employers, much of the information contained here may not be news. But for others, there are programs that the government runs that may be helpful. For example, if you are struggling financially and may need to do layoffs, the Department’s Rapid Response Team can provide some assistance. There are also shared work programs, which I’ve talked about before, which allow employers to maintain some staff on reduced hours, while affording the employees the opportunity to collect unemployment compensation too.

Overall, the guide provides some very useful materials on programs that sometimes fall below the radar.  If you haven’t taken a look recently at the Department of Labor’s offerings, it’s well worth a few minutes of your time to see if there is a program that matches your company’s needs.