Private Equity / Hedge Funds

Later today, I’ll be speaking to the next group of startups chosen to participate in the Accelerator for Biosciences in Connecticut, or ABCT. 

ABCT is a Branford-based program spearheaded by Design Technologies LLC, which supports Connecticut’s aim of being a bioscience hub.

It’s an exciting time for new businesses in Connecticut like those chosen to participate in the program.

But employment law issues are often an after-thought for startups.  They shouldn’t be.

I’ll be talking in more detail to the startups in my presentation but here are three things I’ll be talking about for startups and new business ventures:

  1. Startups should document the relationships with new employees.  Offer letters or, in some instances, contracts should be set up so that new employees know the terms and conditions of their employment.  Even more important, the documentation should detail all forms of compensation — whether salary, bonus, equity etc.  And at-will disclaimers are crucial.
  2. Startups also need to consider protecting the intellectual property of the company from the outset.  After all, if a new employee can just take the knowledge and set up shop across the street, how valuable is the company? Thus, having Non-Disclosure Agreements or other restrictive covenants in place when employees or consultants start is critical to making sure a company’s intellectual property is protected.
  3. Lastly, just because the business is a startup, doesn’t mean there’s an exception to paying employees their wages.  Those businesses must comply with all the rules regarding weekly payment of wages.  Failure to do so can result in significant legal exposure and, worse for some, an investigation from the federal or state department of labor.  Startups should make sure they have the cash flow necessary to make payroll.  If you can’t afford to pay your employees, don’t hire them.

Obviously, there are other questions startups should ask themselves too: Are you going to use a PEO? (or perhaps, What is a PEO?) Are you going to use independent contractors? If so, how is that relationship documented and is it proper? Are employees classified as exempt vs. non-exempt? Are the employees even authorized to work in the United States?

If all these questions give startups some concerns — they should.  Employment law issues are an important part of building a company’s foundation.  Ignore them, and the business that you build might be the proverbial house of cards.

January 1st is typically a time for new laws to kick in and 2019 is no exception.

For employers, the biggest change is one that I discussed way back in May with amendments to Connecticut’s Pay Equity law.

The new law prohibits employers from asking a job applicant his or her wage and salary history. But the prohibition does not apply in two situations:

  • if the prospective employee voluntarily discloses his or her wage and salary history, or;
  • to any actions taken by an employer, employment agency, or its employees or agents under a federal or state law that specifically authorizes the disclosure or verification of salary history for employment purposes.

While salary may not be inquired, the law DOES allow an employer to ask about the other elements of a prospective employee’s compensation structure (e.g., stock options), but the employer may not ask about their value.

The bill has a two year statute of limitations. Employers can be found liable for compensatory damages, attorney’s fees and costs, punitive damages, and any legal and equitable relief the court deems just and proper.  (This bill amends Conn. Gen. Stat. Sec. 31-40z if you’re looking for the pinpoint legal citations.)

Note that this ban on inquiries also applies to applications or other recruiting forms too. So, if your application asks for prior salary history, it’s time to eliminate that.  Employers should inform manager and other employees who conduct interviews about this requirement as well.

 

Are you ready for blockchain’s impact in employment law?

This seems to be the new equivalent to the buzz a decade ago that social media was going to change the world (it kinda did).

Perhaps bigger.

At this point in the post, there are probably two reactions: 1) Tell me more!; and 2) What are you even TALKING about?

So, let’s start with the second question first — what is the “blockchain”? There are many discussions, but one recent ABA article had this to say:

Blockchain is commonly defined as a decentralized digital ledger in which transactions are recorded chronologically and publicly. In its infancy stages, blockchain was the mechanism that tracked cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. However, as the technology evolved, variations such as private, permissioned, and consortium blockchains have emerged. Ultimately, blockchain technology can facilitate many types of business transactions.

Another article by a lawyer described the hype as follows:

By design, blockchains are inherently resistant to modification of the data—once recorded, the data in a block cannot be altered retroactively without obviously corrupting later blocks, which depend on the original data from the earlier block as part of the hash. It can take enormous time and energy to go back and rehash subsequent blocks to try to hide the earlier alteration, and in the meantime new blocks are being added to the chain. This makes a blockchain extremely resistant to modification.

The applications of the blockchain are still in the infancy phase.  (The hype cycle for blockchain is in the “peak of inflated expectations” period and it projects that we are still 5-10 years off from maturity.) And thus, any discussion regarding its implications in the employment law arena are necessarily speculative.

But let the speculation begin.

For example, one human resources expert suggested some uses for this technology as follows:

  • It may make the concept of a “self-sovereign identity” for employees a reality, making verification of past employment or certifications easier and more secure. (Or this breathless article about “Blockchain-based CVs Could Change Employment Forever.“)
  • Potentially, you could run payroll off the blockchain to make those transactions more secure.
  • It could also be used to help employers keep confidential health information and transmit it more easily.

It only takes some imagination to go beyond that as well.

  • “Smart” employment law contracts, in which transactions automatically happen, could be introduced into the workplace.
  • Or the blockchain could be used to secure IP rights to company products, thereby avoiding the confusion as to whether the employee or the employer “owns” such rights.

Blockchain is still very much developing and I wouldn’t be surprised if this article seemed a bit dated a few years from now.  After all, who would’ve thought you could order a car (Uber) inside a social messaging app (Facebook) just a decade ago?

But employers and their attorneys who stay up on technology should understand the potential implications for blockchain in the workplace and be ready to adapt once the technology becomes mature enough to use.  From my perspective, there’s still time to keep reading about this developing technology; the time for action is still yet to come.

This current wave of sexual harassment (and, in some cases, sexual assault) allegations that are making headlines every single day is downright astonishing to many employment lawyers that I know.

It is the tsunami that knows no end.

And right now, that makes me nervous.  But maybe not for the reason you might think.

It’s not that I am nervous for companies or the risk of lawsuits.

I think many companies are prepared to deal with claims of harassment that arise and will adapt quickly to the landscape where more employees are bringing such matters to their attention.

What makes me nervous is the potential rush to judgment that seems to increase with every case.

Think of Matt Lauer last week: A claim brought Monday evening and he was fired late Tuesday night. Quick.

Thorough? Perhaps. Correct? Probably (based on the media reports).  But still pretty quick.

This is not a defense of harassers or even of Matt Lauer.  If someone commits sexual harassment, companies ought to take prompt corrective action. Companies that ignore complaints do so at their own peril.

As a lawyer though, I’m think I’ve been trained to be wary of allegations.  I went to law school in St. Louis, Missouri where they are proud of the slogan “Show Me”.

I have yet to see two identical sex harassment cases. Each matter brings a different set of people, a different set of circumstances, and different set of facts.

Facts still matter.

I’m waiting for the potential (or inevitable?) backlash to come from the current wave.

It may just start with a Duke Lacrosse-type situation — allegations so outrageous that everyone will want to believe them true.  And then we’ll find out that the allegations aren’t true.

And I worry about the harm to the process as a result.  It will set back those with legitimate complaints as well.

So, deep breathes everyone.

See harassment allegations come your way? Investigate. Seek to get the truth. Or as close to it as possible.

Some complaints will be true; others may not be.  What is alleged to be harassment, may instead be a consensual relationship.

And most of all, be cautious. And avoid the rush to judgment.