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.

Now that Thanksgiving is in the past, it’s time to look forward to the future.

Well, not before getting a recap of everything that transpired in employment law in the last year. Or at least everything that we can fit in an hour long seminar.

The webinar that broke attendance records last year is back again on December 4, 2018 at noon ET.

This year, five employment law bloggers are presenting the “Best-Ever Year-End Employment Law Review that Five Employment Law Bloggers Have Ever Presented” webinar.  Registration is just $25 and it’s eligible for CLE/SHRM/HRCI credit.

All that is needed is to sign up here. 

The presenters this year are:

  • Robin Shea, Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete
  • Kate Bischoff, tHRive Law & Consulting
  • Jon Hyman, Meyers Roman
  • Eric Meyer, FisherBroyles
  • Jeff Nowak, Franczek Radelet
  • Daniel Schwartz, Shipman & Goodwin

Among the topics that you can surely expect to hear about: #MeToo, LGBT discrimination, Data Privacy and Security, Wage & Hour issues, and FMLA.

Be sure to sign up; it promises to be the best ever. (At least until next year.)

If you’ve been playing close attention, this blog has been a bit quiet of late.  Indeed, it’s probably the longest stretch between posts in the 11 years I’ve been doing this.

It’s not for lack of ideas.

Rather, after many years of spouting off (which, after all, is the underlying purpose of the blog), I found myself desiring to do a lot more listening.  Listening to employers. Listening to my colleagues. Listening to other lawyers.   And the only way to do that was to really stop writing for a while.

I don’t profess to have been original in this aspect.

I’ve admired a blog from afar that preaches this exact point — Listen Like a Lawyer by Jennifer Romig.  Just a few weeks ago, she highlighted the International Day of Listening — and the theme for this year of “Listening — even when you disagree.”

Imagine that.

But it’s really so true.  In employment law, listening can help employers and employees find common ground. Or, at least a better understanding of their respective positions and avoid lawsuits.

Yes, there’s the obvious examples of the claims of sexual harassment, but there also a whole host of other issues that arise in the workplace because one party isn’t doing the listening.

Take, for example, an employee’s performance. Sometimes, an employer will ask us for advice on a termination; the employee hasn’t been performing well and we want to terminate her performance. One of my first questions to the employers is: What have you communicated to the employee and what does she understand?

A few times I’ve heard — Well, I think the employee should know we’re not happy.

That’s where some employment lawsuits get formed.  They can be forged out of misunderstandings. Or they can be forged with the employer hasn’t communicated well with the employee and hasn’t listened to what the employee has to say.

And it goes both ways too.  No one likes hearing criticisms of their work; has the employee been listening to what you have been telling her?

It’s easy for all of us — in the mad scramble that we deal with on a day-to-day basis — to just try to plow forward. To think we know what’s best. Or to shut ourselves off from learning.

But listening provides one way for all of us to break through the background noise that seems ever present with smartphones, social media, and e-mail.

What strategies for listening have worked well in the workplace? And do they help you as an employer address employee-related issues?

It was the last semester of my senior year in college – right after Spring Break – when I heard the news that would forever shape my views on mental illness.

A friend and fellow editor of the college newspaper I worked for, Steven Ochs jumped to his death from one of the many bridges near his hometown in Pittsburgh, PA.

A group of us ended up driving out there across the fields of Pennsylvania to mourn his passing. It was the first time I was a pallbearer at a funeral and I knew then that was something I never wanted to be for a friend again.

Steven was a remarkable young adult.

I wish you could’ve known him.  He wrote amazing columns for our college paper and editorials nearly every weekday.  Thanks to the internet, you can still read a few here.

I can still remember sitting in his newspaper office couch and hearing him talk; he was always a few steps ahead of me.  I thought he had a promising future.

I thought about Steve a bunch last week, when the celebrity suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Boudrain became headlines.

Those people, along with Steve, seemingly had everything that would want.

And yet.

As anyone who has had a friend or relative commit suicide, there’s a certain amount of second guessing that goes on. What signals did I miss? What could I have done differently? Was I a good enough friend? Why didn’t he ask for help?

And a lot times, it just comes down to a simple question too: Why?

Every suicide of a employee impacts the workplace as well.  And sometimes it is at the workplace itself – but regardless, suicides have been on the rise the last several years. As a Wall Street Journal article from earlier this year noted:

Nationwide, the numbers are small but striking. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, suicides at workplaces totaled 291 in 2016, the most recent year of data and the highest number since the government began tallying such events 25 years ago. U.S. suicides overall totaled nearly 45,000 in 2016, a 35% increase compared with 10 years earlier, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.

Who is most at risk? According to the BLS study, 45- to 54-year-old males had the highest likelihood of committing workplace suicide. And workers in the public sector had a higher propensity for workplace suicide while workers in the private sector suffered the majority of these fatalities. The private industry sectors with the highest propensities for workplace suicide were finance and insurance; professional, scientific and technical services; and health care and social
assistance.

The solutions are far more complex than a simple employment law blog post can capture.  Some of them are rooted in society.  But discussions regarding mental health — and bringing those discussions in the workplace — is often seen as one important step that can be done.  A renewed emphasis on making sure employees know about and use Employee Assistance Programs is also another important step.

HR staff can sometimes be at the front lines.  Figuring out that an employee might need help can be a part of a solution but as we all know, it might still not be enough.

We can only hope that as we raise awareness of this, that we can stop some suicides from occurring so that 25 years from now, someone else isn’t writing a blog post about one of their friends as well.

 

 

You might think the title of this post is a bit self-serving or even self-promotional. Is this post just going to be a backhanded way to hire me, an employment law attorney?

I want to dissuade you of the notion because that’s actually not my purpose.  (Really.)

But over the years, I’ve had friends and colleagues struggle with finding the right lawyers for their business.  In some cases, my firm (Shipman & Goodwin LLP) might be a good fit for them. In other situations, whether because of conflicts or costs, we might not be.

What I tell people is to take a step back and ask yourself a series of questions to start with.  I thought I’d share just a few of them to start the conversation:

  1. What are my needs? This is perhaps the hardest, but most important question to ask yourself before you start.  If you don’t know what your needs are, it’s really tough to find a good match.  If a lawsuit is filed against you, then obviously you need an attorney who has experience in the area that can represent you.  But is this a one-off matter that will be handled in a few hours, or is this likely to be much larger and need the resources of a firm that can handle this?
  2. Do I have insurance that might cover the lawfirm’s expenses (or, perhaps dictate what lawyer I must hire)? Some employers have purchased insurance to handle defense of employment-related claims and you might not even know about it. Figure that out first because there’s nothing worse than hiring one lawfirm only to find out that you’re going to have to choose another attorney by the insurance company.
  3. Do I have a budget? And if so, what lawfirms can work within that budget so that I can maximize my value? Most lawfirms charge by the hour, but will work with companies to try to fit a budget.   But will that mean you are working with an inexperienced associate? Or a more senior one or a partner on your issue?
  4. Do I have related issues beyond just employment law that a general practice firm can best handle? Over the last 15 years or so, employment law boutiques have popped up and for some companies, they may be a good fit (particularly if covered by insurance). But for others, they may have needs that go beyond that? Will you need to find 2 or 3 lawfirms to handle your issues, or should you go with one firm that can service all of them.
  5. Should I pick a lawfirm or pick an attorney AT the lawfirm? Much like hiring a doctor, there are some tasks that can be handled by a variety of lawyers. But for other issues, you might need to seek out a lawyer with a particular expertise.
  6. Do I know anyone that is currently using a lawyer that can recommend one to me?  You might have found this post via Google, which is both amazing and scary at the same time.  If you have, don’t choose a lawyer just because Google ranked them. Rather, if at all possible, do your due diligence on the lawyer. Word of mouth and recommendations from friends and colleagues remains a great way.  Keep asking around until you find someone you’re happy with. Don’t just settle on the first name that pops up.
  7. Can I find out more about how the lawyer thinks through his or her online presence? And if so, does it match my style?  Have you always envisioned your lawyer being a “pitbull” who will support your view no matter what? Or do you want someone who can methodically look at your issue and perhaps give you advice you may not want to hear? Or something else? There are plenty of different lawyers with differing styles. Find the one that fits your company.

There’s something I left off the list — ratings.  Whether it’s “Best Lawyers”, or “Super Lawyers” or “Chambers” or “Avvo” or something else, be wary of hiring a lawyer exclusively based on such a rating.  While it certainly doesn’t HURT to have a lawyer on such a list, there’s far more important qualities to look for in a lawyer.

What else should you look for? Add your view in the comments below.

With Memorial Day coming up this weekend, it’s often a time (or it ought to be a time) to reflect on the sacrifices made by our military.  And at the same time, consider how we, as a society, treat our veterans.

This issue was highlighted for me many years ago.  During a court proceeding in which fraudulent behavior of the witness was being discussed, the witness brought up his past military service, perhaps as a way to seek leniency from the court.

To my surprise, rather than dismiss the comment as outright pandering to the court, the judge took a few minutes to express appreciation to the witness for his service and to note that the judicial system should be sensitive to the needs of veterans.

The court didn’t rule in favor of the witness but I was still struck by the judge’s sensitivity.  It was a learning moment for me that all of us involved in the legal system ought to treat veterans in a similar way — with, at a minimum, recognition for their service and respect.  It didn’t matter at that time whether the veteran was honorably discharged or not; it was their service that mattered.

It is with that background in mind that employers should consider the new guidance from the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) entitled “Guide to the Nondiscrimination in Hiring and Employing Connecticut Veterans”.

In it, the CHRO reminds us that employment discrimination on the basis of “status as a veteran” became illegal effective October 1, 2017.

And what is a “veteran”? Anyone who served? Actually no.

According to the statute, “veteran” means “any person honorably discharged from, or released under honorable conditions from active service in, the armed forces.”

Thus, by its own terms, employers cannot discriminate against veterans who received an “honorable discharge” or a discharge “under honorable conditions”.

But the CHRO guidance addresses whether employers can make hiring decisions regarding veterans who have received discharges under the three other primary designations:  “other-than-honorable discharge, bad conduct discharge, and dishonorable discharge.”

The CHRO calls these designations (along with the discharge under honorable conditions) as “less-than-honorable” or “bad paper” discharges.

The CHRO’s guidance suggests that discrimination against someone who received these “bad paper” discharges might also violate the law because of their “disparate impact on veterans of color, LGBT veterans, and veterans with disabilities”.

Thus, the CHRO opines, “reliance on discharge status” may still violate Connecticut’s anti-discrimination laws.

What’s the proposed solution from the CHRO? Several suggestions are offered:

  • “Provide individualized consideration to veterans with less-than-honorable discharges. This means you should consider the nature of the discharge (i.e. why the veteran was discharged—was it for a minor infraction or because of behaviors related to a mental health condition?), the time elapsed since the discharge, the nature of the positions sought and how the discharge is in any way related to the position the veteran is applying for.
  • Second, you should provide the veteran-applicant the opportunity to present her case for why the discharge should not be factored into your hiring decision. You might also consider the presence of mitigating circumstances like PTSD if the veteran discloses them to you.
  • Additionally, for those service members who were discharged due to conduct arising from a disability like PTSD, you have an independent obligation under both state and federal law to provide “reasonable accommodations” such as making the physical work environment accessible or providing a flexible work schedule.
  • Finally, if you contract with a consumer reporting agency such as HireRight or TransUnion to conduct background checks and your background check results in the discovery of information about an individual’s discharge status, you are required under the Fair Credit Reporting Act to provide notice to the veteran applicant prior to taking any adverse action….”

Employer Takeaways

The CHRO’s guidance here is reminiscent of guidance issued by the EEOC in the early 2010s regarding the use of criminal background checks and the potential for a racial disparate impact.

At the time, some argued that the agency overstepped its authority because there was nothing that outright prohibited the use of such checks under the law and the reach to “disparate impact” was a step too far.

One could make a similar argument here that the CHRO’s suggestion that discrimination against veterans of all types of discharges might also be covered — after a new law that was passed that prohibited discrimination against only those veterans those who received honorable discharges — might be deemed to be overreach.  The legislature only sought fit to protect veterans with honorable discharges; why can’t employers consider those with “bad paper” discharges as a factor in their hiring decisions?

I’ll leave that for the policy-makers to debate.

For employers, the takeaway should be that the CHRO will be looking at discrimination against veterans who received so-called “bad paper” discharges more closely.  While the law may not outright prohibit it, the CHRO will be looking at whether the employer’s decisions might have a disparate impact on a protected class.

And for employers, making individualized determinations on an applicant based on the applicant’s overall fit and qualifications for the position isn’t a bad practice anyways.

 

 

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.

The only relevant test of the validity of a hypothesis is comparison of prediction with experience.

So said the economist Milton Friedman.  At least the Internet says he said it. Must be true, right?

Anyways, before we turn the page to 2018, let’s take a look back at the predictions I laid out on January 2, 2017 for the employment law year. 

  • 2017 is going to be different. Very different it seems.  The USDOL nominee is an outgoing fast-food company CEO for starters.  He’ll bring a management perspective far different than the current administration.

Well, he didn’t last long. The DOL nominee never made it to the Department of Labor.  By February of 2017, he withdrew his name as a nominee.  Who would’ve predicted that?

But the replacement nominee came from a similar management-side background. As such, he’s brought the expected change to the department.  And not surprisingly, 2017 has been very different indeed for employment law.  No overtime rules and a slowing down of other rulemaking as well.

All in all, a modest prediction and mostly met.

  • The biggest change we’ll see will come from the appointments to the National Labor Relations Board.  Expect the appointees to be management-friendly and roll back several decisions and rulings from the NLRB.  Those decisions, however, may take some time to work through however.

Well, this was spot on.  Admitted, it’s somewhat easy to predict because the NLRB is a nakedly-partisan group. The decisions that come from the NLRB are more political than almost any other agency — and change from administration to administration.  The appointments have, as expected, been management-friendly.

Moreover, it took a good bit of time for those decisions to work through the system. Indeed, arguably it was only last week that we saw the first major shifts as we recounted in a blog post earlier this week.

For this prediction, I think I can declare this one a success.

  • Federal increases to minimum wage or federal legislation on things like paid sick leave or employment law protection based on gender identity or sexual orientation also seem unlikely.

This too, seems on target.  There’s been no major federal legislation in the employment law area to come out of Congress despite the Republicans controlling both the House and the Senate.   While I’ll save the 2018 predictions for another day, I think it’s safe to say that we should expect more of the same in 2018.  Prediction met.

  • What happens at the U.S. Supreme Court is still up in the air as well, though don’t be surprised to see a return of a union dues or “agency fees” case.

It took until September, but the full Supreme Court took up the “agency fees” case again.  The court had deadlocked on the issue in early 2016 so it’s not a huge surprise to see it come back.  Oral argument is now scheduled for late February 2018 and a decision is expected by June.  Again, met this prediction.

So, all in all, a fairly modest list with some decent success.

What will 2018 have in store? Stay tuned!

Barring some major developments (or an urge to write), this will likely be the last post for 2017 as well.  I wish you, your workplaces and your familes (your real ones, not your workplace ones) a safe and warm holiday season, and a Happy New Year.

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.

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.