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.   
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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 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?!
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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

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

Rainbow over Hartford
Are Things Getting Better or Worse?

The last few weeks it seems that I’ve been reading about sexual harassment in the workplace issues a lot more. Here are a few examples:

Connecticut Supreme Court
Connecticut Supreme Court

In an unanimous decision that was released late this morning, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled the limits to free speech limits established by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Garcetti decision — namely that speech pursuant to an employee’s official job duties was not protected —