Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak to the IASA Northeastern Conference on a favorite topic of mine of late — Privacy and Data Breaches in the workplace.

Of course, that sounds kinda of boring.

So my presentation is actually called the title of this post: “The Rise of Smartphone Fueled, Social Media Addicted Workplace Zombies.”

Much catchier right?

Speaking before the Insurance Accounting & Systems Association (IASA) Northeastern Chapter at their 54th Annual Regional Conference was great fun though.

In my talk, I highlighted items like Business E-mail Compromise scams, Ransomware, and yes, even workplace zombies.

What do I mean by that? Well, too many of us (including me at times) stare at our phones and sometimes respond to e-mails or click without thinking.  (Think Before You Click would make the name of a good book; fortunately, I wrote a chapter in that very book a while back.)

Protecting workplace data IS about thinking. It’s about protecting personnel files, or benefit information, or retirement plan data.  It’s about protecting trade secrets or just plain confidential information.

It’s about building a CULTURE of data privacy. Where employees buy in that protecting data is a core value and where employees are REWARDED for good data practices while enforcement (with a bit of punishment where needed) is encouraged by all.

It’s not the most exciting topic to be sure but everyone wants to be protected from the zombies, right?

I gave a similar talk early this summer as keynote lunch speaker for the ADNET Worksmart conference and it worked so well, word got around.  Maybe data privacy can be interesting after all.

My thanks to IASA for the invitation and opportunity to speak to the group yesterday.

With a new wave of sex harassment complaints making headlines, there is also a bit of reflection that should happen at workplaces and the lawfirms that counsel them.

One area that we can evaluate is whether the training that is provided is effective.

A report yesterday from NPR concluded that training is just not working at many workplaces. 

The primary reason most harassment training fails is that both managers and workers regard it as a pro forma exercise aimed at limiting the employer’s legal liability.

For those of us who have been paying attention, this isn’t new.  I know that for the trainings I give, I try to have them be engaging with discussions of different fact scenarios being discussed.

But I’ve wondered whether we could be doing more.

Indeed, the EEOC issued a report last year highlighting the problems with existing training programs.

In its executive summary, it noted two big issues with the current model of training:

  • Training Must Change. Much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool – it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability. We believe effective training can reduce workplace harassment, and recognize that ineffective training can be unhelpful or even counterproductive. However, even effective training cannot occur in a vacuum – it must be part of a holistic culture of non-harassment that starts at the top. Similarly, one size does not fit all: Training is most effective when tailored to the specific workforce and workplace, and to different cohorts of employees. Finally, when trained correctly, middle-managers and first-line supervisors in particular can be an employer’s most valuable resource in preventing and stopping harassment.
  • New and Different Approaches to Training Should Be Explored. We heard of several new models of training that may show promise for harassment training. “Bystander intervention training” – increasingly used to combat sexual violence on school campuses – empowers co-workers and gives them the tools to intervene when they witness harassing behavior, and may show promise for harassment prevention. Workplace “civility training” that does not focus on eliminating unwelcome or offensive behavior based on characteristics protected under employment non-discrimination laws, but rather on promoting respect and civility in the workplace generally, likewise may offer solutions.”

Connecticut requires harassment training; I’ve talked about the requirements in some prior posts (check this one out from 2010, for example.)  But employers who have just gone through the motions, aren’t doing enough as we’ve now seen.

As we continue to work to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace, having an effective policy is only part of the solution.

Making sure the training we provide to employees is helpful is obviously a part as well — and something that may have been overlooked in the past.

But finding that perfect solution to training still seems elusive.

“Let’s engage in a Halloween-type party where everybody would be having sex.”

Or perhaps, “So, are you going to wear a bikini for your Halloween costume?”

What is it about Halloween that brings out the creep factor in the workplace?

The first quote is from a real district court case earlier this year which documented a series of alleged comments made relating to a sexual harassment complaint.

(If you’re scratching your head at the reference to a “Halloween-type” party, I’m right there with you.)

The second is from a different case that is no less offensive in its descriptions of pervasive inappropriate conduct in the workplace.

(And, as if you needed confirmation, Princess Leia in a bikini from Return of the Jedi is not appropriate in the workplace, however cool Princess Leia is.)

Now, long time readers may recall a 2008 post about the perils of costumes in the workplace, and another post in 2010 about the perils of enabling sexual harassment when it comes to Halloween.

And yet, it continues.

Suzanne Lucas (a/k/a Evil Hr Lady) recently posted some tips about hosting an Office Halloween party.  Among them:

Costumes shouldn’t make fun of other cultures, the word “sexy” shouldn’t be attached to any workplace costume and the gore should be kept to a minimum. Remember, the goal is to have fun, not to offend. If you want to dress up as a sexy zombie, save that for your own Halloween party with personal friends.

But here’s my simple advice, be afraid. Be very very afraid. There are just way too many bad things that happen on Halloween with far more “tricks” than “treats”.

I realize that sounds like a no-fun lawyer, but how many more sexual harassment cases from Halloween do we really want or need? Do I need to keep writing these posts each Halloween?

Shorter is better.

Why? The slang TL;DR comes to mind.

But it turns out there’s an educational component too — at least according to the results of a new study that examined workplace contracts.

In the study, published in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology and recapped by Insights by Stanford Business School, “the researchers found that workers whose contracts contained more general language spent more time on their tasks, generated more original ideas, and were more likely to cooperate with others. They were also more likely to return for future work with the same employer, underscoring the durable and long-lasting nature of the effect.”

In other words, contracts that contained pages upon pages of specific do’s and don’t for workers, ended up harming the employment relationship.

Instead, researchers found that “the more general contracts increased people’s sense of autonomy over their work.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve talked about the need to write employment contracts in plain English — something that is at the core of a book by Ken Adams whose work has appeared on this blog before.

It turns out that even “minimal changes”, in the words of one of the study’s authors, can have “important consequences.  Especially when it comes to behaviors that are notoriously difficult to include in contracts, such as increasing effort, task persistence, and instilling a stronger sense of autonomy, which leads to higher levels of intrinsic motivation. Reducing the specificity of contractual language can also increase creativity and cooperation.”

From a legal perspective, I’ll blame some lawyers for introducing some language in a contract that can be overkill at times.

(Don’t think lawyers are at least partly to blame for long contracts? Next time you see a “This space is intentionally blank” line in a contract, rest assured that it probably came from a lawyer.)

A few years ago, our practice group went through a standard separation agreement template to remove the “Whereas” clauses and the “Definitions”  — all in an attempt to simplify the agreement. The process took months.  Simplification does not necessarily mean increasing risk. It just takes more time.

Just ask Mark Twain (actually don’t — it’s a misattributed quote.)

Of course, you probably don’t need me to tell you that shorter is better. I just read the abstract and not the entire article.

After all: TL;DR.

When was the last time you said you’re sorry to someone at work.  Last week? Last month? Last year? Never?

There isn’t a right answer to this but I was thinking about this yesterday on the Jewish New Year.

Jews are asked to spend the next 10 days to reflect on the past year and ask those who they may have slighted in last year for forgiveness.

Call it prep work for Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement.

First, an acknowledgement (apology?) up front: This isn’t the firm time I’ve written about workplace apologies.

Back then, I referred you to the SorryWatch blog, which tracks good, bad and ugly apologies.  (There is also a category for “Evil Twin” apologies too. Worth checking out just for that.)

More recently, the blog authors recount the apologies of the Royal Canadian Mountain Police in settlement of a massive discrimination and workplace harassment claim a while back.

It’s a terrific and rare example of the power of an apology in the right circumstance.  You can read the whole thing here, but here’s a brief cut from it:

Instead of succeeding and thriving in a supportive and inclusive workplace, many women have suffered careers scarred by gender and sexual discrimination, bullying and harassment. …

Harassment and the lack of effective systems and processes to have prevented it and eliminated it from our workplace is absolutely at odds with what the RCMP is supposed to be. It is at odds with what we all need the RCMP to be.

To the representative plaintiffs here today: Janet Merlo, who has so courageously taken the lead to represent so many women who have been adversely affected, and to Linda Davidson and all the women you represent; indeed to all the women who have been impacted by the Force’s failure to have protected your experience at work, and on behalf of every leader, supervisor or manager, every Commissioner: I stand humbly before you and solemnly offer our sincere apology.

You came to the RCMP wanting to personally contribute to your community and we failed you. We hurt you. For that, I am truly sorry. You can now take some comfort in knowing that you have made a difference. Because of you, your courage and your refusal to be silenced, the RCMP will never be the same.

I must also apologize to all Canadians. I know how disappointed you’ve been with the Force as you heard some of these very public and shameful examples of disgraceful conduct within our ranks.

The SorryWatch blog gives a big thumbs up to the apology because it meets their suggestions for a good apology.  There are five steps to lay the foundation for a good apology:

  1. Say you’re sorry.
  2. Say the thing you are sorry for. (As an aside, this is notoriously hard for my kids.)
  3. Say you understand the import of what you did.
  4. Make amends.
  5. Figure out what steps to take so it doesn’t happen again.

It won’t work in all instances. But in some it will.

So have your employees say “I’m sorry” to one another when appropriate; it may just prevent your next discrimination case from happening.

The Dialogue, a online conversation between yours truly and a prominent employee-side attorney, Nina Pirrotti, returns today with another installment — this time tackling the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace.   For prior installments, check out these posts here and here.  As for the promised redesign and relaunch of the blog, it’s nearly complete. Can’t wait to share it with you soon.    

chionDan: Last time we promised to tackle a serious topic: Pizza. Given that you’re based on New Haven, surely you have thoughts on the subject. Pepe’s? Sally’s? Modern? Or something else? 

But in the meantime, I wanted to tackle a really serious topic and get your thoughts on the state of sexual harassment claims.  It feels like we’re hearing more about it of late.  It’s been about two months since Bill O’Reilly was fired from Fox News amid allegations of sexual harassment, and the news this month is of a major shakeup at Uber in light of an internal investigation looking at workplace culture.  Indeed, the Uber CEO just announcement his resignation yesterday! We won’t get statistics out from the agencies that receive harassment complaints (EEOC and CHRO), but anecdotally, it feels like we’re seeing more awareness of the issue and more questions from employers.  What are you seeing from the employee-perspective this year?

nina_t_pirrotti1-150x150Nina: This is the bone-chilling reality and the reason why, even if I won the lottery tomorrow I would never give up my day job:  Sexual harassment continues to infect the workplace at the same alarming levels as it did in the days of Mad Men.  Indeed, the only aspects of it that have changed over the years is that now  men of power have much greater variety in the manner of delivery.  So in addition to groping, fondling and yes, even raping women in the workplace ala Don Draper and his C-Suite buddies, men of power these days are also sexting, Snapchatting  and otherwise exploiting social media to prime, intimidate and conquer their victims.  Hell, the president of the United States is even doing it!

Long before a SunTrust recruiter made headlines when he sent a nude photo of himself to a female prospective hire, exposing his genitals and inviting her to “play,” my client, a factory worker who spoke little English, endured daily groping and sexual taunts from her assembly line supervisor.  The smoking gun in that case?  A naked photo of himself that he texted her during work hours.   That case settled quickly, and despite her paltry salary, very, very well.

The main problem I encounter is, even if by some miracle such women summon the courage to come to me (the factory worker, for example, cancelled two appointments before she showed up at my office) , they often are petrified to take it to the next level.   Even when they have damning evidence, these men have such a hold on them that they fear for their jobs and even their physical safety if they come forward.   I will never forget the time I had to meet with a client at an undisclosed location far away from her workplace and my office to consult with her on a case in which the powerful, rainmaker chief of her department was subjecting her to unrelenting sexual harassment and she had the “goods” (graphic e-mails) to prove it!  She, an otherwise rational, grounded person, was convinced he would discover what she was doing and harm her.

Is your workplace more like a locker room?
Is your workplace more like a locker room?

What makes matters worse is that too often these victims’ worst fears are reinforced by employers who fail to take swift, decisive action when sexual harassment allegations are brought to light. This is far more apt to happen when the predator is a money maker for the employer.    In the case of the harassment by the department chief, for example, several other women had complained about his conduct to no avail.  Such non-response packs two punches.  First, it emboldens the predator who now  has first-hand knowledge he can act with impunity.  Second, it chills fresh victims, like my client, from taking action to protect themselves.   At some point, the hope for we plaintiffs’ employment lawyers, though, is that the lid explodes off the boiling pot.   We have seen this time and again in the media with Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes and the folks at Uber et al and, closer to home, that fearful employee who was sexually harassed by the “untouchable” chief ended up convincing four other employees to come forward (three of which were senior executives) and that case settled for well over $1 million even though the hospital finally terminated the chief and all five employees  kept their jobs.

I know your clients would never face such a predicament because they are getting advice from the best, Dan!  Perhaps you could share with us, though, how you counsel those employers who learn that an otherwise valuable employee is being accused of sexual harassment?

As for Pepes, Sally,Modern, Bar or others go, they are all great but I prefer making my own.  The secret is in my sauce . . .

Dan:  Well that’s a lot to respond to! But I don’t think it’s a fair argument to elevate rape (a horrific violent crime) into an analysis of sexual harassment cases in general.   No legitimate employer or their counsel is going to countenance sexual assault (much less outright sexual harassment either.)  Everyone agrees such conduct is wrong.    Continue Reading The Dialogue: Sex Harassment in the Workplace — Still an Issue, but How Much?

starrMy colleague Gary Starr returns today with a decision from the Second Circuit (which covers Connecticut) that may just surprise you. Then again, if you’ve been following this line of reasoning, perhaps not.

There are outer limits to insulting speech, but a recent decision seems to indicate that it is really really far out there.

The questions up for consideration: When can an employer fire an employee for profanity during a union organizing drive?  When does the employee who stoops to insult not only his supervisor, but his mother, lost the protection of the National Labor Relations Act?

The Second Circuit faced these questions and provided a glimmer of hope for employers.

During the course of a nasty union organizing drive at a catering company, an employee became very upset at what he considered the employer’s continued disrespect for the employees.

In response, Perez used his iPhone during a work break to post the following:  “Bob [his supervisor] is such a NASTY MOTHER F****R don’t know how to talk to people!!!! F*** his mother and his entire f***ing family!!!! What a LOSER!!!! Vote YES for the UNION!!!!”

Perez had about ten other employees as friends on Facebook, but the post was also available to the public. Management learned of the post, investigated, and then fired Perez, just days before the election.

An administrative law judge found that the firing violated the law as Perez was engaged in protected, concerted activities.  This decision was upheld by the NLRB.  The case was then appealed to the Second Circuit.

At the court, the question was whether the post exceeded the bounds of protection by using profanity and insulting the supervisor’s mother.

While the Court in NLRB v. Pier Sixty was disturbed by the language and by the Labor Board’s failure to adequately take into account the employer’s interests in assessing how to evaluate a social media posts, it nonetheless, found a violation of labor law by the employer.

The Court noted that the employer had not disciplined many others for profanity in the past, even though profanity was a common occurrence in the kitchen,  that the language was not used at a catered event or in front of customers, that the message focused on matters that are protected, concerns about respect, that the message concluded by urging readers to vote for the union, and that the discharge occurred two days before the voting.

While the Second Circuit upheld the Labor Board’s decision, it sent a message that these facts are on the “outer-bounds of protected, union-related comments.”   It cautioned the Labor Board that it needed to be sensitive to employers’ legitimate disciplinary interests and to properly balance the competing interests of employees, unions and employers.

The facts in this case presented the court with hurdles it could not get over.  Profanity was common in the workplace, employees had not been disciplined for using profanity in the past, and the incident was almost on the eve of the union vote.  The employer was unable to show that the posting online had harmed its business.  But in another context, using union organizing as a shield to insult supervisors’ mothers may not work.

The Dialogue — one of the more popular recurring posts — returns for the third time. Does that mean the third time’s the charm? Or is it three strikes and we’re out? In any event, Nina Pirrotti of Garrison, Levin-Epstein, Fitzgerald and Pirrotti, P.C. returns for this installment where an employee-side and employer-side attorney discuss the issues of the day. Today’s topic discusses the lay of the land when an employee files a complaint against his or her current employer. Well, that and Unicorn Frappuccinos….

unicornsNina Pirrotti: It is that time, once again for the two of us to lock horns, I mean engage in a spirited discussion about, how we both help our clients to navigate thorny issues which arise in the workplace.    One such issue is how to advise our clients when an employee has alleged discrimination while she is still employed with the very employer she is accusing of wrongdoing.  Wow.  I feel a knot forming in my stomach just contemplating it!   

There are many complexities inherent in this scenario at each stage, from how the complaint is initially expressed, to the manner in which it is investigated, to whether the employee who complains should stay or go (or something in the middle like a leave of absence) to various resolution options.  In fact, I feel so strongly that employees and employers often botch one or more facets of this fraught situation  that I proposed it as a subject for a panel at NELA’s annual employment conference this June and I will be speaking on that panel!

I think I will start the ball rolling by saying that my biggest fear is that clients who remain working in a hostile work environment often feel so powerless and outraged by their situation that they are vulnerable to doing everything wrong from making more frequent mistakes to lashing out at supervisors or peers or far worse.   I used to save my admonishments about refraining from such behavior for my less sophisticated clients until it became clear that my C-Suite executive clients were just as likely to partake.   Now, no matter who my clients are, a big part of my counseling session revolves around how they should conduct themselves in the workplace.  If anything, I want them to strive even harder to be consummate professionals, above reproach.   My most common refrain is:  Do not arm your employer with a legitimate justification for terminating you!

There is so much to territory to explore here, Dan, but, could you highlight for me one or more of your biggest concerns when a client comes to you and says one of its employees has alleged discrimination or harassment in the workplace?

Dan Schwartz: Locking horns, eh? Perhaps you’ve had one too many Unicorn Frappuccinos (R.I.P.)  from Starbucks.  Alas, I do tend to agree with you that this is one area where rainbows and happy endings are rare.

When I hear about current employees who bring suit against their employers, I tend to think an apt comparison may be the spouse that files for divorce but the couple still has to live in the same house.  It’s awkward.  Everyone is walking on eggshells.

The fact is that one big concern I have for employers in this situation is to avoid a retaliation claim.  You say you encourage employees to be “above reproach” and I wish that were always the case, but sometimes employers will get these types of claims and they’re in the midst of either terminating or disciplining an employee — what then? If they do so after the claim, they’re opening themselves up to a retaliation claim. And we know how nasty those can be.  (Documentation is critical.)

But if it’s a harassment complaint that the employer gets, it typically becomes a real fire drill — drop everything and begin an investigation. That investigation may or may not need your client’s help, Nina. So what do you do in that situation where an investigation pops up?

Nina: Ok – you got me.  I couldn’t resist looking up the Unicorn Frappuccino on Google after my husband assured me you weren’t making it up.  This is how Starbucks describes it:  “Magical flavors start off sweet and fruity transforming to pleasantly sour. Swirl it to reveal a color-changing spectacle of purple and pink.”    It sounds like a liquid nightmare.  Hmmm could the Unicorn Frappucinno’s “magical flavors” be a metaphor for the very type of employer-employee relationships of which we are speaking?! Continue Reading The Dialogue: Workplace Complaints and Happy Endings As Rare As Unicorn Frappuccinos?

U.S. Supreme Court
U.S. Supreme Court

Over the last week or so, there have been two prominent Circuit Court decisions addressing whether Title VII (the federal law prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion and national origin) can be interpreted to also protect employees from being discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.

The Second Circuit, which covers Connecticut, basically said no in a decision last week in Christiansen v. Omnicom Group.  The court did open the door a bit to a claim that an employee was discriminated against because of sex stereotyping.

Yesterday, the Seventh Circuit created the first split at the appellate level, finding that Title VII does cover such claims in the Hivley v. Ivy Tech Community College case.   Jon Hyman, of the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog, does a good job addressing the historic nature of the case here.

Back in 2016, I wrote that it was somewhat disappointing that we were still having these battles at the federal level, considering that Connecticut already had state laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  “Those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender frankly deserve better, in my view. They deserve their own federal law giving them the workplace protections that Connecticut has given.  Until then, the battles over the scope of Title VII will continue.”

Indeed, the battles are now going to get bigger. One or more of these cases are now likely to get heard at the U.S. Supreme Court level where it is far from certain whether Title VII can really be read so broadly.

Of course, Congress could end these debates once and for all by passing a bill prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as I discussed way back in 2008.

But unfortunately, we seem to be no closer to passage of a bill than we were a decade ago.

Connecticut employers should largely ignore the press reports about Title VII and instead focus on their obligations to comply with state law.  Eventually the federal courts will work these issues out, but the issue is mainly moot in Connecticut.

loveWhile the calendar may read Valentine’s Day, I’ve tackled more than my fair share of love-themed posts in the past filled with roses and chocolates.

So instead, I’m going to go in a different direction entirely: Guns. (Though query whether the music group Guns ‘n’ Roses would care to disagree with me.)

See, there was this employee who worked at a car dealership wasn’t in love with guns.  But he believed his supervisor was.  So much so that, according to a complaint filed in state court, the supervisor would sit in “his office looking at and ordering guns.”  The employee then observed that packages containing “guns, including AR-15s, clips, handguns, suppressors and [rifles]” were being delivered to work.

The employee raised the concern to the dealership’s owner. Later that date, the supervisor said allegedly told the employee to “stay the [expletive] out” of the supervisor’s business.  Two days later, the employee was fired.

The employee brought suit claiming that he was wrongfully discharged in violation of a public policy in consideration of Conn. Gen. Stat. 31-49 — which requires employers to exercise reasonable care to provide employees with a reasonably safe place to work.

The Superior Court found that such a claim could survive a motion to strike.   In doing so, it court concludes that there is an important public policy of having an employee “raising his concern over firearms in the employer’s workplace”.

The case, Schulz v. Auto World, is an important reminder that not all causes of actions are clearly spelled out in the law. Sometimes courts look to general principles to take the law in different directions.

In this instance, employers should take notice of the public policy articulated by the court that guns in the workplace in Connecticut are still to be considered unusual.