What a year it has been for harassment claims. The biggest year in the 22 years I have been practicing law. It seems that every day there is a big new headline or rejuvenated social media campaign, and someone else powerful losing their job over harassment allegations.

It is astounding to me that there are so many issues, even after AB 1825 was passed back in 2004 mandating harassment prevention training in California. That statute was expanded to require training on bullying and abusive conduct in 2015 (AB 2053). And now, as of January 1, 2018, it will need to include training on gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation (SB 396).  With increased protections for transgender employees under California law, training to increase tolerance and understanding surrounding those issues will be particularly important.

Training certainly hasn’t fixed the harassment issue. But since training is mandatory for any business with over 50 employees, it might as well be meaningful. That is why I try to focus my training on real life stories and anecdotes that get people out of their own head (and point of view), and into the head of the victim. One of the main themes is always that harassment is based on perception, not intent; so it is possible to unintentionally harass someone, in fact it happens all of the time. For example, someone may think a compliment, sexual innuendo, or even a direct pass is flattery, but as the millions of “me too” posts reflect, that may not be how such conduct is perceived by the recipient.  Especially when there is a power differential at play.

David Schwimmer’s series of #that’sharassment videos provide realistic (and disturbing) examples of how harassment resonates in workplaces, and how it feels to the recipient.

In my career I have seen many talented and valuable managers lose their jobs due to inappropriate behavior that violated harassment policies. In my training, I tell all managers that doing a great job is not a defense to a harassment claim, and won’t protect them. That message certainly rings true based on recent headlines.

Illustration of a pot boiling overCalifornia employers can expect all of the news about harassment claims to keep bringing even more issues to the surface. The proverbial pot has been stirred.

And as current events have shown, taking prompt action to correct and prevent harassment is critical. There have been enough headlines about harassment in 2017, don’t let the next one be about your company.  Let’s put an end to the me too’s.

Governor Brown is in that final flurry of signing and rejecting bills sent to him at the end of the legislative session. Two of those bills that we have been following involved pay equity issues. The Governor approved one, and vetoed the other.

The Governor signed into law AB 168, which bars employers from asking job applicants about their previous salary. The stated goal of the legislation is to narrow the gender gap by preventing employers from basing offers on prior salary and thus, presumably, perpetuating historical discrimination. This will also remove the perceived gap in negotiating power between an employer and an employee who must disclose her (or his) prior salary.

The Governor used the veto pen on AB 1209 that would have required large employers (500 or more employees) to report “gender wage differentials” to the Secretary of State for publication. The legislation seemed to presume that a comparison of “mean wages” and “median wages” between men and women would result in a “differential.” This legislation would have been a powerful weapon in the hands of plaintiffs’ lawyers who are bringing cases under the California Fair Pay Act where employers bear the burden of proving that a “differential” is not the result of gender discrimination. The Governor expressed this very concern, explaining that ambiguities in the bill “could be exploited to encourage more litigation than pay equity.”

We will continue tracking and reporting on new legislation.

 

The California Legislature has completed its work for this session, and three bills concerning employment issues survived the process and have been sent to Governor Brown for his consideration and possible signature. All three of these prospective laws have been labeled “job killers” by the California Chamber of Commerce which is lobbying heavily against the bills. Opposing the Chamber on these issues are the state’s unions and the organized plaintiffs’ bar.

AB 1209 would require employers to report wage payments by gender. Such reporting would fuel the fires of lawsuits under the state’s recent Fair Pay Act under which a “pay gap” is presumed to be a result of illegal discrimination.

SB 33 would outlaw arbitration clauses in certain consumer agreements. This legislation is another example of the hostility of the California courts and legislature to arbitration agreements, including in the employment context. This new bill seems contrary to binding U.S. Supreme Court precedent, and would likely not survive a judicial challenge.

SB 63 would extend employee parental leave protections to employers with 20 or more workers. Currently the law applies only to employers with 50 or more workers. This law would obviously be a burden on smaller employers.

We can expect many of the bills that did not pass the legislature this year – such as required predictive scheduling for retailers and restaurants (SB 878), and universal health care — to reappear in the next session. This ever-vigilant blog, of course, will keep you posted.

39224362 – web content accessibility concept with wheelchair icon and symbol on a blue computer key for blog and online business.

The claim du jour is website accessibility.

Plaintiffs are suing businesses in alarming numbers alleging that websites are not accessible to persons with disabilities.  In this alert, Fox attorneys Carolyn Richmond, Ernest Badway and Jason Jendrewski offer practical guidance for avoiding a lawsuit.

In addition to explaining the legal issues, this article includes a comprehensive checklist to evaluate the accessibility of a website and its content.  It also includes helpful action items for conforming with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0.

Get up to speed on this new legal issue here!

If the EEOC’s recent lawsuit against Estee Lauder is any indication of things to come, now is a good time to review your parental leave policy.  The crux of the policy at issue is a grant of six weeks of paid parental leave for a primary caregiver and two weeks for a secondary caregiver.  On its face, it seems lawful and non-discriminatory, but what about in practice?

A week before the EEOC filed suit, I was at a cocktail party chatting about parental leave with a business owner.  We discussed different trends in these types of policies and the concept of “primary” and “secondary” caregiver delineations.  “How do you know if someone is really a primary caregiver?” he asked.  “What if you know the father is definitely not the primary caregiver but insists he is for purposes of the parental leave policy?” Good questions.  I paused and responded that I wouldn’t recommend challenging the caregiver status and would operate on the honor system.

In the Estee Lauder case, the practice was to assume the mother is the primary caregiver unless the father proves otherwise or the birth is through a surrogate.  This assumption treats men less favorably than women and is the foundation of this lawsuit based on gender discrimination.

I have seen, and even drafted, numerous policies relying on caregiver status and have not seen any implementation issues based on gender.  But, in light of these recent lawsuits, I’ll be adjusting my recommendations.  Some issues to consider:

  1. Whether the policy treats men and women differently based on gender stereotypes (e.g. maternity vs. paternity)
  2. How parental leave coordinates with any state or local paid parental leave (information on San Francisco’s required policy here)
  3. How parental leave coordinates with any disability policy, as policies that seek to deduct state disability payments from parental leave policies treat disabled mothers less favorably than non-disabled fathers
  4. Ensure compliance with PDL, FMLA and CFRA in conjunction with any disability and/or parental leave policy
  5. With pending litigation, the law in this area could change soon, so seek counsel to be sure you are up to date

On September 27, 2017, at noon, I will be presenting a webinar entitled “2017 Update: Accommodating Employees With Disabilities.” The program is intended for human resource professionals and anyone else who fields requests for accommodation for their employer. I will explain what constitutes a disability, the extent of employers’ duties to engage employees in the interactive process to explore possible accommodations, and steps employers can take to meet their legal requirements and minimize their exposure to discrimination claims. The program will be an hour long with an additional 15-minute Q&A session.

Regular readers of this blog have heard me say many times that the disability discrimination laws require more than treating everyone equally. The obligation to reasonably accommodate means that some employees will get advantages that others don’t. Employers are expected to bear the expense and inefficiencies that this entails. Those that don’t understand the extent of that obligation expose themselves to costly litigation and government investigations. On September 27th I will provide concrete, real-world advice gleaned from decades of advising employers and defending disability discrimination claims. Don’t miss it!

 

Koko the Gorilla, who turned 36 last month, has quite a following. Much of that has to do with the fact that she purportedly has a vocabulary of over 1000 words that she communicates through sign language. If this were a blog about linguistics, primate behavior, or how the Planet of the Apes movies are a cautionary tale about future inter-species conflict, we’d delve into that further. But it’s not. So let’s talk about another thing Koko is famous for.

Koko is the only western lowland gorilla to be accused of sexual harassment. In 2005, two women working for the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, CA (southwest of Redwood City) sued claiming that the president of the Foundation pressured them to expose their breasts to Koko. According to the lawsuit, which settled for undisclosed terms:

“On at least two incidents in mid-to-late June 2004, Patterson intensely pressured Keller to expose herself to Koko while they were working outside where other employees could potentially view Keller’s naked body. … On one such occasion, Patterson said, ‘Koko, you see my nipples all the time. You are probably bored with my nipples. You need to see new nipples. I will turn my back so Kendra can show you her nipples.'”

Both women further allege that they declined to “indulge Koko’s nipple fetish.” If this were a blog about gorilla’s sexual predilections, we’d delve into that deeper. But it most assuredly, is not. It’s about California Employment Law. We make that pretty clear at the top of the page. So what does any of this have to do with California employment law?

For employers, preventing harassment requires more than just controlling their employees. Companies can also be liable for harassment of their employees by third parties if the company fails to take prompt and effective measures to address the harassment. Employers can’t necessarily control the behavior of customers, clients, vendors, contractors, and everyone else their employees interact with in their work. But if you’re an employer, you should take these steps:

  1. California regulations require that a company’s sexual harassment policy prohibit harassment by co-workers, supervisors, managers, and third parties with whom the employee comes into contact. So ensure that your harassment policy contains that language.
  2. Ensure that your harassment policy directs employees whom to complain to if they are subjected to harassing behavior by third parties.
  3. Train your supervisors to notify human resources immediately if these issues come to their attention.
  4. If issues of third-party harassment arise, make sure that the company conducts a prompt and thorough investigation.
  5. If the facts developed in the investigation warrant, take prompt remedial action that is reasonable to prevent the situation from recurring.
12506543 – western lowland gorilla portrait (gorilla gorilla gorilla) captive. national zoo. washington dc, usa.

This last step can be complicated. You can’t necessarily counsel or discipline third parties the way you can with employees. In extreme cases, companies have even had to fire clients who refuse to treat the companies’ workers appropriately. Fortunately, that’s just in extreme cases — where the clients insist on behaving like gorillas.

 

 

A year ago, I wrote about a report from an EEOC Task Force on risk factors for workplace harassment. Well the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace continues studying away and has issued some new materials. They consist of:

Takeaway No. 1: It’s a point I’ve been making for years and will keep making. If your company gets sued for harassment, the case will be less about what the harasser did than about what the company did to prevent and respond to the situation. As the law gets more exacting on what it expects from employers, it’s critical to have qualified legal counsel guide you through this process.

Takeaway No. 2: There is such a thing as researchers who evaluate organizations’ holistic workplace harassment prevention efforts!

Have you ever felt powerless in your job?  Felt that there was no way you could have impact on the corporate environment?

Well, recent events have shown how the catalyst theory is alive and well in corporate America.

Take Uber for example.  A mere four months ago, a lone female engineer who had left the company after feeling mistreated wrote a blog post.  Within days, that post went viral, caused Uber’s CEO and Board to take notice, and sparked a chain of events that was fascinating to watch (and blog about).

One woman and her blog post ignited a chain reaction that culminated with the CEO’s resignation on June 20th.  As reported by news outlets, Travis Kalanick was forced out by Uber’s Board after several investors demanded his resignation, in large part due to the sexual harassment probe initiated by that single blog post.  The allegations in that one blog post wound up being the tip of the iceberg, with a reported 215 harassment complaints at the company, resulting in the termination of at least 20 executives.  Many of those harassment claims remain unresolved, and the company now has a mandate to change its culture and implement 47 different recommendations to make it a more politically correct company.

In fact, there are many other examples in the press about the catalyst theory at work, involving major television celebrities and executives.  Powerful people, who once seemed untouchable despite all types of bad behavior (that was widely known yet unaddressed) eventually fall or are forced out.  At times, karma really does catch up with people and justice can prevail.

So, if you are feeling powerless at your company, and think change can’t happen, well, think again.  Just read the headlines, because one person (and in this case one brave woman), can really make a difference.

 

 

 

 

 

It took three months, but the long-awaited report about Uber’s culture from former Attorney General Eric Holder and his law firm was published this week. You can read the 13-page report with its 47 recommendations here.  Uber’s Board of Directors voted unanimously to adopt all of the recommendations.

CEO, Travis Kalanick, will have a reduced leadership role.  Parts of his job will be given to a new Chief Operating Officer charged with implementing the Board’s recommendations. There will also be more Board oversight of management, and steps to create a more independent Board that can actually hold management accountable (including financially).

In addition, it was also reported that the CEO is taking an immediate and indefinite leave of absence.  It has been a rough year for Kalanick, whose mother recently died in a boating accident where his father was also seriously injured.

In his statement to Uber employees he writes: “The ultimate responsibility, for where we’ve gotten and how we’ve gotten here rests on my shoulders. For Uber 2.0 to succeed there is nothing more important than dedicating my time to building out the leadership team. But if we are going to work on Uber 2.0, I also need to work on Travis 2.0 to become the leader that this company needs and that you deserve.”

The report also reads like a help-wanted advertisement to consultants of all types as it requires:

  • Mandatory Leadership Training for Key Senior Management and Executive Team Members
  • Mandatory Human Resources Training
  • Mandatory Manager Training
  • Interview Training

Uber is also in the market for several senior executives including a new Chief Operating Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Senior Vice President of Engineering, and General Counsel after many high profile departures.

There are also recommended changes to the Human Resources Department and complaint process, which seem long overdue.  As you know from prior blog posts, the way Human Resources reportedly handled the harassment issues raised by female engineers was a lesson in how not to investigate a complaint.

Steps will also be taken to limit the party atmosphere (less alcohol and controlled substances at work) and to prohibit romantic or intimate relationships between individuals in a reporting relationship.  Hard to imagine that these protections were not already in place for a business with over 12,000 employees.

Probably the most entertaining recommendations were a revamp of the company’s core values to eliminate those that have been used to justify poor behavior, such as:

  • Let Builders Build
  • Always be Hustlin’
  • Meritocracy and Toe-Stepping
  • Principled Confrontation

Oh, and my personal favorite, the War Rooms will now be designated Peace Rooms.

Rainbow peace flag
Copyright: daboost / 123RF Stock Photo

Some are skeptical that Uber can change.  Whether it can depends on whether Kalanick and other senior managers can set aside the aggressive culture to walk-the-walk, and not just talk-the-new- peaceful-inclusive-talk.