congresswhouseI confess that when I first heard the story last week that some Capitol Hill lawmakers were refusing to meet alone with female subordinates, I didn’t pay much attention to it.   Lawmakers just being lawmakers.

(I was also reminded of the old Billy Joel song, I Don’t Want to Be Alone Anymore, but I digress….)

Over the weekend, I was listening to Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast (which I highly recommend) which talked about the story more in detail.

And the more I heard, the more I wondered whether any private employers adopted this practice.

For companies, though, this type of practice is just trouble waiting to happen.

First the backstory. During a recent survey, female staffers reported on sexist behavior at Congress.  Some inadvertent.  But some of it was not.  According to the Washington Post story on it:

The worst transgression, which multiple women reported (and National Journal’s interviews with male colleagues confirmed), was a more deliberate inequity: In some offices, only male staffers can spend time one on one with their (male) bosses.

“There was an office rule that I couldn’t be alone with the congressman,” one anonymous staffer reported.

Another: “I was not allowed to staff my boss at certain events without another male staffer present — because I was a woman.”

And another: “My former boss never took a closed-door meeting with me in the span of working for him, off and on, over a 12-year stretch. Even when I was in a position of senior leadership.”

One woman said she was told she could no longer join her GOP congressman boss at events because the chief of staff decided her presence in so many photos was “not appropriate.” In another case, a similar call was made at the behest of the wife of an unnamed Southern Republican, because the Mrs. thought such interactions looked “unseemly.”

Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard of such an isolation rule. In schools, for example, teachers are often taught not to be alone with students.  And in sex harassment prevention training course, we sometimes talk about how it’s not a good idea for co-workers at a conference to meet up in one’s hotel room or to force employees to share a hotel room to “cut costs”.

But obviously, this Capitol Hill story goes much further.  And as the Slate Political Gabfest folks correctly note, it may very well be unlawful discrimination — at least as applied to the private workplace.

As one employment law attorney noted in a story for the National Journal:

[The attorney] worries that limitations on what female staffers could do in a congressional office compared to male staffers would hinder hiring decisions. And even for women who do get hired, the lack of one-on-one time could prevent them from moving up within their offices. “You’re not being perceived as a professional,” [she] said.

“So much happens in creating trustful relationships and if you can’t develop a trustful relationship where you’re having some one-on-one time, as the men apparently are getting—I can see many reasons why this is a terrible idea, terrible in the sense of discriminatory,” [the attorney] added, calling the practice “clearly unlawful.”

In short, such a practice is just a bad idea.  If a supervisor is worried about perceptions, he or she has a few choices.  Among them: 1) Refuse to meet with ANY subordinate alone, thereby treating everyone the same; or 2) Meet with subordinates of both genders alone and just avoid any appearance of impropriety.

And a supervisor can do common sense things too — like avoid meeting a subordinate in a hotel room during an off-site conference to avoid the appearance that anything other than work behavior is expected.

But let’s call treating employees differently because of their gender for what it is: Discrimination.

I’ve long since preached about the need for ongoing sexual harassment prevention training.

My new firm, Shipman & Goodwin LLP has a series of trainings scheduled that should hopefully fit your schedule if you or your employees have a need for such training.

The next one is scheduled for August 27th in Hartford from 7:45-10a.  Full details are available here. 

The cost is just $50 per person and each person who attends will receive a certificate upon completion.

If you’re interested in signing up, you can register here.  And if you’re going, please don’t hesitate to introduce yourself to me personally.  Its being led by one of my capable colleagues.  See you then.

A case out of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (of which, Connecticut is part of) addresses an interesting question:

When a jury  finds that sexual harassment has been perpetuated by a single employee, is injunctive (non-monetary) relief required to be issued by the District Court?

The EEOC argued yes and argued that remedies such as preventing the harassing employee from returning to the workplace were appropriate. 

Um, there’s a problem in Aisle 3.

The Second Circuit agreed in part, saying that ordinarily a termination of a lone harasser should be enough. But the court said that given the egrigious facts of this particular case, something more should’ve been done to protect the female employees from potential future harassment.

The case, EEOC v. KarenKim, Inc. (d/b/a Paul’s Big M Grocery), can be downloaded here. 

There’s a lot of facts to the case, but this summary, by the Outten & Golden Employment Law Blog, captures some of the salient points:

KarenKim is a grocery store whose employees largely consist of teenage female employees. The company is owned and managed by Karen Connors. In 2001, she hired Allen Manwaring as the store manager. In 2006, Connors and Manwaring became romantically involved and had a son together.

At trial, a number of current and former employees testified about Manwaring’s sexual harassment of the female employees, which consisted of verbal and physical harassment. Some of his verbal comments included making comments of a sexual nature to employees and compliments about parts of their body. He told one employee that if he was her boyfriend, he would never “let her out of his sheets” and that “if he was 10 years younger, he would be on top of her.” He also physically harassed the women by touching and massaging them in inappropriate ways and on a daily basis. He would brush up against them to deliberately touch their breasts, put his crotch against their buttocks, breath on their necks, hug them, and squeeze their hips.

Oy.

Continue Reading What Remedy Is Appropriate When a Jury Concludes Sexual Harassment Occurred?

One of the great local treats in Connecticut this time of year is a corn maze. My favorite for the last few years is the one created by Lyman Orchards in Middlefield, CT.  (And while you’re there, don’t miss picking a few apples or getting a fresh apple pie).

Mazes aren’t anything new. Employment lawyers and human resources staff, nowadays, have to go through seemingly endless mazes of laws and regulations.  It can be difficult to find your way out.  

But hope is not lost. Indeed, even at Lyman Orchards, there were guides and clues to help you find your way. In that same fashion, hopefully this post can serve a similar function.

Connecticut employers have particular requirements for to provide sexual harassment training for some of the employees (and you should read them in full here and seek legal guidance if you need it). Here’s some of the basics:

  • Only employers with 50 or more employees fall within the scope of the regulation.
  • For such employers,  two or more hours of training and education to all supervisor employees within 6 months of their assumption of such a role (whether through a hire or promotion).  
  • That training has to be conducted in a classroom-like setting (though electronic delivery has also been approved in some circumstances), using "clear and understandable language and in a format that allows participants to ask questions and receive answers."
  • The training must include:
    • Describing the federal and state statutory provisions prohibiting sexual harassment in the work place with which the employer is required to comply
    • Defining sexual harassment as defined by the law and distinguishing it from other forms of harassment
    • Discussing the types of conduct that may constitute sexual harassment under the law
    • Describing the remedies available in sexual harassment cases
    • Advising employees that individuals who commit acts of sexual harassment may be subject to both civil and criminal penalties; and
    • Discussing strategies to prevent sexual harassment in the work place. 

The regulations provide that additional topics or approaches may be done, but emphasizes that they are optional.

Similarly, the regulations suggest that employers of 50 or more employees provide an "upgrade" of the information every three (3) years.

Lawfirms and experienced HR consultants have long been providing this service so it should not be difficult to find someone to assist. But this is a fairly easy regulation to abide by.  Note that employers under 50 merely have posting requirements, though nothing prevents the employer from conducting the training anyways.

One practical suggestion: Conduct trainings in late-April and late-October in regular intervals. That should cover new supervisory employees in a timely fashion and reduce the number of people likely to be on vacation.  

And this will be one maze of regulations that you can find your way out of.