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.

hartfordYears ago, I recall having a friendly conversation with another attorney in Connecticut where the topic turned to the notion of “At Will” employment.

When we couldn’t settle on an answer, we moved on to talking about whether the Hartford Whalers would ever come back.

I think we had a better answer for that question: Probably not.

But this is an employment law blog, not a sports one, so let’s get back to the topic.

Employment-at-will is, from a legal perspective, the notion that an employer may discharge an employee without restriction, that is, for any reason or no reason, without incurring any liability to the employee.

Simple enough, right?

Well, not quite. First off, Connecticut recognizes two major exceptions to this doctrine:

  1. The termination cannot violate an important public policy;
  2. The termination cannot breach an implied contract of employment if one as formed.

And, it should be noted, that there is the obvious exception that the termination cannot violate any other state or federal law — such as the laws prohibiting discrimination.

This again sounds simple enough, but in discussions with employers, there is another topic that comes up — fairness.  In other words, employers typically are wise the ask themselves whether a termination under the circumstances is “fair”.

Now that can mean a lot of things in a lot of situations.  For example, suppose an employer hires an employee, but 3 weeks later the employer loses a major contract and needs to layoff ten employees.  It may not be exactly “fair” to terminate this newly hired employee, but if the employer may be being “fair” by laying off newly hired employees first.

Sometimes, the “fairness” question is framed slightly differently.  Suppose you have a newly hired employee who is late to work a few times in the first 30 days and then shows up to work under the influence of alcohol.  Can you simply terminate the employee then?

Under most circumstances, yes, and most people would say this is fair because the employer is simply holding the employee accountable under its rules and a new employee shouldn’t get a lot of free passes.

But now suppose you have a 20 year employee who has an exemplary record of service.  The employee has no record of tardiness or misbehavior, but after a March Madness weekend, shows up at late to work with bloodshot eyes.  It should be noted, though, that a week before, the employee had complained to his boss that the machine he was working on seemed in need of repair.

Under the employment-at-will doctrine, the employers still has the same right to terminate the employee, but I think most people would think this situation ought to be looked at differently.  If the employer proceeds with the termination, it’s possible that it opens itself up to a threat of a claim.

Why? Because while the employment-at-will doctrine still applies, a judge or fact-finding would also then ask the same question — does this termination seem “fair”?

If the answer to that question is “no”, then judges and juries will look for alternative explanations.  Here, one could argue that it was the employee’s complaint that was the motivating factor in the termination and the employee was being retaliated against for complaining.  Otherwise, the termination seems a bit “unfair”.

That type of logic may not be “fair” either, but it goes to show that the employment at will doctrine should not simply be relied on in all circumstances.

I’ve yet to have an employer just say, “I didn’t have a reason for firing the employee. I just felt like it.” That may work under the “at will doctrine” but in the real world, it probably wouldn’t fly.

For employers, always try to look at your decisions through a neutral prism.  Or better yet, ask yourself: What would my neighbor think about this? If the termination seems unfair under those circumstances, it may be a clue to re-think your decision.

 

capitoldasThe Connecticut General Assembly is back in session and with significant budget deficits looming, it’s not going to be an easy year for legislators.

From a labor and employment law session, once again it will be interesting to see what will be seriously considered.

A Bloomberg Law article late last week suggested that Democrats in several states, including Connecticut, are planning bills to try to replicate the federal overtime-pay overhaul that has been held up in federal court.   Without citing names, the article states:

Democrats in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maryland, Wisconsin and Michigan said they plan to introduce bills modeled on Obama’s reform, which would have made millions more white-collar workers eligible for overtime.

A cursory look at the Bill Record book for the Labor & Public Employees committee fails to show such a bill yet, but it’s still early. At this point in the legislative cycle, only early “proposed” bills are officially on record. That, of course, doesn’t mean that other draft bills aren’t being floated out there.

So among the proposed bills, what else is out there being considered for 2017?

  • As expected, a paid family & medical leave bill is definitely on the table now, after being looked at for the last 18 months or so.  Indeed, it is titled “Proposed Senate Bill No. 1″ and is co-sponsored by several senators.  Having a bill marked as “One” indicates that this will be a priority in the current session.  The details, however, are still being worked on.
  • Another bill that already has garnered widespread support including from the House leadership is Proposed House Bill 5591.   While again, the details are still forthcoming, the bill would “require employers, including the state and political subdivisions, to provide equal pay to employees in the same workplace who perform comparable duties.”  What’s still unknown is why this is being sought, just 2 years after another pay equity bill titled “An Act on Pay Equity and Fairness” was passed. Time will tell, but expect to see more on this bill soon.
  • Another bill concerning “Various Pay Equity and Fairness Matters” (not to be confused with prior bills) has also been proposed by new Representative Derek Slap from West Hartford.  That bill would mirror some other states that have recently passed bills further limiting what prospective employers can ask applicants. Specifically, this Proposed House Bill 5210 would:

(1) Prohibit employers from asking a prospective employee’s wage and salary history before an employment offer with compensation has been negotiated, provided prospective employees may volunteer information on their wage and salary history,

(2) Prohibit employers from using an employee’s previous wage or salary history as a defense in an equal pay lawsuit,

(3) Permit an employer to have an affirmative defense in an equal pay lawsuit if it can demonstrate that, within three years prior to commencement of the lawsuit, the employer completed a good faith self-evaluation of its pay practices and can demonstrate that reasonable progress has been made towards eliminating gender-based wage differentials, and

(4) Protect seniority pay differentials from adverse adjustments for time spent on leave due to pregnancy-related conditions or protected parental, family and medical leave.

Other proposed bills can be found here including an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

One important note: The state Senate has now split 18-18 among Democrats and Republicans.  Thus, I think it’s fair to expect that there will be less laws that impact employers than in year’s past.  The CBIA has an update from a business perspective here.

Well, it was bound to happen.  After nine years of writing the blog on a near daily schedule, some work and personal commitments interfered with my blog writing schedule. But never fear, more new posts from me are now right around the corner.

In the meantime, one of our summer associates, James Joyce, joins the blog today to give an update on a a law passed last year regarding pay secrecy. My thanks to James for his work on this.  James is finishing up his law degree at University of Connecticut.  

joyceLoyal readers may recall that about a year ago, Connecticut’s “Act Concerning Pay Equity and Fairness” Public Act 15-196, became law.   Dan has already blogged about the nuts and bolts of the “Pay Secrecy Bill” and its potential impact on employers.

And, as Dan highlighted, employers need to be mindful of this legislation because it created a private cause of action in court for any violation.  That is where today’s post comes into the picture.

One of the first lawsuits alleging violations of the “Pay Secrecy Bill” was recently filed in Superior Court in Stamford (the case has since been removed to Federal District Court).   The lawsuit raises other issues as well, but for today’s post, we’ll focus on the “Pay Secrecy” claim.

So what’s in this lawsuit? Well, the plaintiff alleges that her former employer maintained a “Pay Secrecy Policy” forbidding employees from discussing their salaries despite the enactment of the “Pay Secrecy Bill” in July 2015.

Specifically, the allegations include a run-in with the human resources (HR) department due to comments the Plaintiff made about salaries and her former employer’s view that this was inappropriate and none of the plaintiff’s business.  The plaintiff received an “Employee Warning Notice” from HR and HR went on to tell the plaintiff she could not discuss her wages or her co-workers’ wages.

Additionally, in February 2016, it is alleged that a former co-worker of the plaintiff was reprimanded for a conversation she had with another employee about the company’s paid time off/holiday policy.  The former co-worker was allegedly told directly by the CEO and by HR that this conversation or any similar conversations violated the company’s policy prohibiting employees from discussing compensation with other employees

Obviously, whether or not these facts are true — or rise to a level of violating the law — will play out in court.  But these types of incidents are just the sort of things that employers need to be aware of to avoid “Pay Secrecy” violations.  The law prohibits employers from implementing policies that prevent employees from, or disciplining employees for, engaging in conversations about salary-related information.

Because this case was recently filed there is no way to predict how the court will rule.  Nevertheless, that does not mean this case should be ignored until it is decided.  Employers should remind their human resources staff and managers of this new Connecticut law.

The downside will be cases like this where the employer may have to spend time and money investigating and defending themselves against the alleged “Pay Secrecy” violations.  Employers also risk being found liable for compensatory damages, attorney’s fees and costs, punitive damages, and any legal and equitable relief the court deems just and proper related to the alleged violations.

outten
Wayne Outten addresses conference

No one will ever mistake the Connecticut Legal Conference, run by the Connecticut Bar Association, for, say a glitzy gaming conference. But if you were fortunate to attend, you had the opportunity to hear some pretty good speakers talk about employment law for several hours.

Among the topics were a discussion on the Ellen Pao case, a discussion of the “Obama Effect” on race relations in the workplace, and a recap of other notable employment law cases from the last year.

For me, one of the most interesting discussions came from Wayne Outten – the incoming chair of the ABA Labor & Employment Law Section, and an accomplished plaintiff’s lawyer.  His talk focused on the lawyer as “problem-solver” which he said was critical in employment law cases.

He said that he often tells his clients (employees at companies) that self-help is their first best option.  It’s something I’ve preached as well. Once you get lawyers involved, you can never de-escalate a situation.

I’ve often preached about how employers need to be “fair” in the decisions. He said that for employees, he advocates the same thing.

But he also pulled back the curtain on the advice he gives to employees too; he plants a seed for employees to use in their negotiations (and again, it’s a well-known device).  He suggests that the employee tell the employer that he’s met with an employment lawyer and that lawyer said he or she has a good case, but that the employee is the “reasonable” one and wants to work things out directly with the employer.  It’s the veiled threat approach.

For those that haven’t heard Wayne speak before, he also provided a top 10 list that he’s given for many years on the ways for employers to avoid getting sued.  Among them:

  • Be fair and reasonable in all your dealings with employees.  Follow the Golden Rule: Treat every employee the way you would want to be treated — that is, fairly. Treat every employee so as to bring out the best that person has to offer.
  • Consider alternative dispute resolution techniques. When the foregoing approaches fail to avert or resolve a particular dispute, consider using such alternative dispute resolution procedures as peer review, early neutral evaluation, mediation and non-binding arbitration. (Use of ADR procedures should always be truly voluntary — not crammed down on employees as a condition of initial or continued employment.)
  • Be nice to plaintiffs’ attorneys. When you get a telephone call or letter from a lawyer representing a current or former employee, consider it an opportunity to engage in mutual problem-solving. Consider meeting with the employee and his or her counsel to exchange views on what happened and how the situation might be remedied. Such discussions may avert litigation.

For employers, there’s wisdom in this advice.

As I said before, the notion that this might be a quiet year for employment law legislation at the Connecticut General Assembly has long since left the train station.

Indeed, we’ve appear to be swinging completely in the opposite direction. Anything and everything appears up discussion and possible passage this year — including items that really stood no chance in prior years.

GA2I’ll leave it for the political pundits to analyze the why and the politics of it all. But for employers, some of these proposals are going to be very challenging, at best, if passed.

One such bill, which appeared this week on the “GO” list (meaning its ready for considering by both houses) is House Bill 6850, titled “An Act on Pay Equity and Fairness”.  Of course, you won’t find those words in the bill itself which is odd.  There is nothing about pay equity in the bill; indeed, it is much much broader than that.

It stands in contrast to, say, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which tried to tackle gender discrimination in pay directly.

This bill would make it illegal for employers to do three things. If passed, no employer (no matter how big or small) could:

  • Prohibit an employee from disclosing, inquiring about or discussing the amount of his or her wages or the wages of another employee;
  • Require an employee to sign a waiver or other document that purports to deny the employee his or her right to disclose, inquire 1about or discuss the amount of his or her wages or the wages of  another employee; or
  • Discharge, discipline, discriminate against, retaliate against or otherwise penalize any employee who discloses, inquires about or discusses the amount of his or her wages or the wages of another employee.

You might be wondering: Isn’t this first bill duplicative of federal law? And the answer is yes, and then it goes beyond it.  Federal labor law (the National Labor Relations Act) already protects two or more employees discussing improving their pay as a “protected concerted activity”.  It’s been on the books for nearly 80 years. So, as noted in an NPR article:

Under a nearly 80-year-old federal labor law, employees already can talk about their salaries at work, and employers are generally prohibited from imposing “pay secrecy” policies, whether or not they do business with the federal government.

This provision goes beyond that by making it improper for an employer to prohibit an employee from even disclosing another employee’s pay.

Continue Reading “Pay Secrecy” Bill Goes Above and Beyond Other Proposals

Back in July, the proposed Paycheck Fairness Act, whose lead sponsor is Connecticut’s own Rep. Rosa DeLauro, was still just being tossed around. At the time, I noted that there was criticism of the statistics being used to justify the law.

Now, numerous outlets are suggesting that the bill is close to passage (here, here and here.) Jon Hyman, of the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog, has previously provided this excellent recap of the five significant changes that employers should be aware of in this bill.  They include modifications to the defenses can use, enhanced damages, new non-retaliation provisions, changes from an opt-in to an opt-out class action status, and new reporting obligations. 

The topic is one that is of interest to our current Connecticut senators. In March 2010, Sen. Dodd held a hearing on the subject here.  For more background, you can see all of my posts related to the subject here. 

In the meantime, employers should keep tabs on this new legislative initiative.

— There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics

                                                                                     —– Mark Twain

Given that Mark Twain is one of Hartford’s most famous residents (now "celebrating" 100 years since his death), it seems appropriate to invoke another one of his famous sayings.

Time and again, statistics keep getting raised to the forefront of public discourse. This time, it’s in the context of why we need the Paycheck Fairness Act — a proposed bill in Congress that I’ve discussed before.

Notably for those in Connecticut, the bill’s lead sponsor is Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn3.)

This week, Stephanie Thomas — an economic and statistical consultant specializing in EEO issues — published a thought provoking piece about one statistic being raised in support of the bill:  that women still only earn 77 cents for each dollar earned by men.

As Stephanie notes, when most people hear that statistic, they assume that gender discrimination must be the reason for the difference. But Stephanie says that discrimination cannot be the reason when you look at the data.

She goes to the original source for the statistic and found that well over half of the difference can be explained by non-discriminatory factors:

[In the study, the researchers] found that 59% of the gender differential could be explained by non-discriminatory things: experience, chosen occupation, chosen industry, etc. So the "77 cents" statistic can’t be due to discrimination:

  • Estimated wage gap based on "77 cents" statistic = $0.23 per hour
  • Amount explained by nondiscriminatory factors = $0.14 per hour
  • Amount NOT explained = $0.09 per hour

According to [the study], the most that could be attributed to discrimination is $0.09 per hour. And this assumes that their model accounts for ALL legitimate nondiscriminatory factors.

She notes that there may be other reasons for the difference as well such as negotiating skills.

Of course, that’s not to say that there may not be yet compelling reasons for changes in the law. But as Stephanie is wise to point out — using this statistic as the basis isn’t one of them. 

(Photo courtesy of Library of Congress Flickr photostream)

I have often said that whether an employee is viewed as being treated "fairly" may predict whether an employment decision will later be upheld by a judge or jury.  courtesy morgue file "notebook"

A recent study, however, shows that issues of "fairness" relating to employment decision may also affect a worker’s outlook on life.  A Washington Post article has the details:

A pair of psychologists recently evaluated hundreds of employees at a large North American university that was in the grip of painful change. The researchers wanted to find out whether there were factors that explained why some employees successfully weathered the transition and reengaged with their jobs, while others spiraled into cynicism and exhaustion — the classic signs of burnout.

Burnout has been long associated with being overworked and underpaid, but psychologists Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter found that these were not the crucial factors. The single biggest difference between employees who suffered burnout and those who did not was the whether they thought that they were being treated unfairly or fairly.

"These fairness issues can be huge," said Maslach, a social psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley. "Issues around fairness are highly linked to the anger and cynicism that are linked to burnout."

When a worker suffers burnout, she added: "You feel you have been treated with disrespect. It generates enormous personal anger for small things because of what it implies."

Although not the subject of their study, I have seen several instances of laid-off employees who sue — not necessarily because they were discriminated against — but because they did not believe the decision was "fair".  A lawsuit is seen as a way to right a wrong, in their view.  Anger and cyncism about the future are certainly common in such cases.

I am not implying that all cases are brought for this reason (nor am I saying that all cases that are brought are without merit).  But certainly the "fairness" of the employment decision plays a major role in how employees and others view the decision.

So what’s the takeaway for employers from this study? While it’s easy to make business decisions in a vacuum, explaining the reasons for those decisions and ensuring that employees understand the "fairness" of them, may play a major role in reducing exposure to lawsuits in the future.  In addition, keeping employee morale up — even in tough times — may not be an impossible task, but only if employees are made to understand that the decisions may not be ones they "like" but they are fair.