In the last few months, I’ve had some inquiries from employers asking about resources for layoffs.

Yawn.

Everyone remembers the layoffs of the recession, right?

Actually no, as it turns out.

In the ten years since the last great round of layoffs, there is a big group of new managers, directors, human resource personnel, lawyers etc that have joined the workforce.  And, as it turns out, they really DON’T remember the layoffs.  Unemployment is low. “Why would I need to worry about a Reduction in Force?

The stock market’s drop yesterday should remind all of us that good times aren’t always going to last.

What’s ironic about this is that back in 2008 — when the unemployment rate was skyrocketing — programs about reductions in force were just taking off and I noted the same concerns about whether employers were sufficiently aware of the issues.

History may repeat itself. Back then, I highlighted a few items that employers had to think about:

  • The WARN Act – If you’re doing a mass layoff, you need to notice affected workers in advance and provide notices to local and state officials.
  • Separation Agreements – If you want employees to sign a separation agreement (and you probably should), you need to give employees who are terminated in a layoff 45 days to consider an agreement and provide additional background information about the layoff itself.
  • Disparate Impact Analysis – With computers, checking your layoff data to ensure that it doesn’t have a disproportionate impact on protected groups (or, if it does, a legitimate business reason why it might) remains important.

Much of this remains valuable advice today.  And for employers who don’t remember this, now would be a good time to start your refresher courses.

Layoffs may not be right around the corner. But employers that are looking ahead in their business plans for 2019, would be wise to ensure that their staff are aware of the obligations that attach if the economy turns cold.

If you ever read the state labor laws (wait, you haven’t?), you sometimes come across provisions that seem like they were written for another generation.

And indeed, they were.

Take, for example, Conn. Gen. Stat. 31-23.  It prohibits children under the age of 16 from working in the “manufacturing, mechanical, mercantile or theatrical industry”.

That seems to make some sense as far as child labor laws are written. Then it goes on.

It also prohibits working in a “restaurant or public dining room.”

Public Dining Rooms? I was about to write this off entirely as just outdated but there is at least one reference I’ve found in Connecticut to a “public dining room”.  Grasso Tech’s culinary arts program advertises a “public dining room” on Facebook, so perhaps we can give them a break.

And then the statute singles out three other businesses to add to the prohibition: any bowling alley, shoe-shining establishment or barber shop.

It seems an odd arrangement for businesses. Some of it can certainly be seen rooted in safety — you wouldn’t necessarily want minors dealing with sharp tools if a barber shop or the equipment of a bowling alley.

Indeed, Conn. Gen. Stat. 31-25 prohibits minors from operating elevators! Tell that to my kids who love pushing the buttons.

My best guess from review of the legislative history, though, is that the statute is rooted in something more nefarious — that these industries would somehow show the dark side of society.

Now, there are some exceptions for other businesses over the last decade or so that I’ve covered previously; golf courses, or cashiers in supermarkets etc. all have some exceptions.

But the bowling alleys and shoe shining establishment bar still stands.

Some laws are hard to change.

Over the last several months, I’ve been asked to do far more sexual harassment prevention trainings than typical and the issue of profanity in the workplace has popped up.

No doubt that much of this is due to the recent spate of cases of very public sexual harassment and assault cases (Thank You Matt Lauer!). This has led to the #metoo and #timesup movements becoming more than a mere hashtag.

But at a recent training, we got into a discussion about whether profanity could ever be used in the workplace.  Does it create a “hostile work environment” under federal anti-discrimination law?

I’m not the only one to think about this question. In fact, the Hostile Work Environment podcast (how appropriate!) tackled this subject a few weeks back — and also delved into the subject about whether an employee’s use of profanity could be protected speech as well.

But one of the most interesting cases I’ve seen on the subject differentiated between different types of profanity (h/t Ohio Employer’s Law Blog for the original cite to this case) and came out of the 11th Circuit early this decade.

Before we go further, let me use the words of the 11th circuit to issue a warning:

We recite the profane language that allegedly permeated this workplace exactly as it was spoken in order to present and properly examine the social context in which it arose. We do not explicate this vulgar language lightly, but only because its full consideration is essential to measure whether these words and this conduct could be read as having created “an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive.”

(I’m still going to keep this post PG-13 but now that you’ve been warned, read on….)

The court’s decision focuses on the difference between profanity of the general type, which it calls “general, indiscriminate vulgarity” (presumably, words like “sh**”), and “gender-specific, derogatory comments made about women on account of their sex.”

The court said that there was ample evidence that, as one of two female workers, the Plaintiff overheard coworkers used such gender-specific language to refer to or to insult individual females with whom they spoke on the phone or who worked in a separate area of the branch. Indeed, the court said that her male co-workers referred to individuals in the workplace as “bitch,” “f**king bitch,” “f**king whore,” “crack whore,” and “c**t.”

And thus begins a discussion of profanity that hasn’t often been seen in the court system.

[T]he context may illuminate whether the use of an extremely vulgar, gender-neutral term such as “f**king” would contribute to a hostile work environment. “F**king” can be used as an intensifying adjective before gender-specific epithets such as “bitch.” In that context, “f**king” is used to strengthen the attack on women, and is therefore relevant to the Title VII analysis. However, the obscene word does not itself afford a gender-specific meaning. Thus, when used in context without reference to gender, “f**k” and “f**king” fall more aptly under the rubric of general vulgarity that Title VII does not regulate….

The court then focuses on the notion that what is important to decide if conduct is “severe or pervasive” to create a work environment is the entirety of the situation.

[W]ords and conduct that are sufficiently gender-specific and either severe or pervasive may state a claim of a hostile work environment, even if the words are not directed specifically at the plaintiff…. It is enough to hear co-workers on a daily basis refer to female colleagues as “bitches,” “whores” and “c**ts,” to understand that they view women negatively, and in a humiliating or degrading way. The harasser need not close the circle with reference to the plaintiff specifically: “and you are a ‘bitch,’ too.”

The court opines that “Evidence that co-workers aimed their insults at a protected group may give rise to the inference of an intent to discriminate on the basis of sex, even when those insults are not directed at the individual employee.”

But what if the workplace just had a lot of profanity?

Then, the court says that might not be enough. “If the environment portrayed by [the Plaintiff at the Company] had just involved a generally vulgar workplace whose indiscriminate insults and sexually-laden conversation did not focus on the gender of the victim, we would face a very different case. However, a substantial portion of the words and conduct alleged in this case may reasonably be read as gender-specific, derogatory, and humiliating.”

For employers, the case is a reminder than a hostile work environment need not have pornography in the workplace to satisfy the standard; words can be enough depending on the context and the pervasiveness of it.  Employers should be mindful that profanity in the workplace — particularly when it is sexually-laden and directed at or around others — can have serious legal ramifications.

One last point: The employer here argued that the environment existed before the employee joined too and that it was not, therefore, directed to the Plaintiff.  The court easily dismissed that argument.   Once [the Plaintiff] entered her workplace, the discriminatory conduct became actionable under the law. Congress has determined that [the Plaintiff] had a right not to suffer conditions in the workplace that were disparately humiliating, abusive, or degrading.”

 

Do you remember your first day at work?

I’m not just talking about a new job.

I mean your first day EVER at a workplace.

For my oldest daughter, today is that day.

She starts as an intern at a local manufacturer of “Highly Complex Machined Parts and Precision Cams for Aerospace, Medical and Commercial Applications” to help her focus on aerospace engineering.

This internship program started a few years ago from our town’s high school and gives students a chance to see the workplace from the inside, all under the supervision of an internship program.

When she came home earlier this week from an “interview” (which I think was more of a guided tour, truth be told), the excitement from her was palpable.

“The machines are so….cool!”

When asked to explain, she said, well, it was just “cool”.  She had a huge smile and couldn’t wait for today to come.   She loves engineering (we’re starting on college applications this fall!) and the chance to have her work at a place where engineering is at its core is pretty, well,  “cool”.

Of course, like any good father (who is also an employment lawyer), I talked to her about some workplace notions — she needed to be on time, to be helpful, and to work hard.

And I told her that she had a right to be treated fairly, to be free of harassment (not that I had any notions that is going to happen here), and that the internship program was intended as a learning tool (and thus ask questions).

Of course, I could’ve pointed her to prior blog posts on internships here, here and here but that would just be asking for the classic teenage eye roll.

I’m wise enough to know that someday she’ll have a tough day at a job.

But I hope she remembers the excitement of Day One.

Because it’s really “cool”.