I remember back in 2004 when AB 1825 passed, requiring all California businesses with over 50 employees to train all managers and supervisors on harassment prevention.  It was one of the first significant employment laws signed by Arnold Schwarzenegger when he became California governor (and yes, that is ironic given the allegations against him).

Uncomfortable employee
Copyright: bbtreesubmission / 123RF Stock Photo

For the past 13 years, I have been conducting harassment prevention training for clients.  I have probably done that training 150 times.  And each year when I update my materials, there are always plenty of new and juicy stories from my cases, and the news, to refer to.

I always start each training by asking – why are we doing this?  Is it still needed?  Well, apparently, it is.  Especially in the tech industry.  Have you been following the stories last week about Uber?  Can it be that such stuff still happens in work places in California?

For those of you who haven’t been following, here are the highlights.

  • The issues started on February 19th when Susan Fowler wrote a very compelling blog post detailing her experiences as a female engineer at Uber.
  • Her account is very troubling from an HR standpoint, including overt sexual overtures from management, and reports to HR that were incredibly mishandled.
  • Fowler contends that Human Resources essentially sided with management, protected the serial harasser, and lied to her and others about it; in legal terms that is called ratifying bad behavior.
  • By February 21st, Uber had retained former US Attorney Eric Holder to lead an independent review into Fowler’s claims.
  • Board member Arianna Huffington and the company’s Head of HR were also tapped to assist.
  • Then on February 22nd, the New York Times wrote an article titled “Inside Uber’s Aggressive, Unrestrained Workplace Culture.”  Indeed, that article brought to my mind images of the excesses portrayed by Leonard DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street before the stock crash.
  • Then on February 23rd, Uber’s CEO met with over 100 of the company’s female engineers (the “Lady Eng Group“), who told him that the company has a “systemic problem” with sexism.

Wow.  How can this be?  13 years after AB 1825?  Haven’t businesses learned that harassment costs money?  Public embarrassment?  How much money does a company have to lose to take such claims seriously?  How many good (and typically female) employees need to exit?

After defending such claims for employers for over 20 years now, I know that not all harassment allegations are true, and that there are two sides to every story.  I also know that sometimes well-meaning Human Resources professionals are thwarted by management.  But I also know that company culture starts at the top, and if management doesn’t live the stated company values, the employees don’t either.  And if management endorses an aggressive bro-centric abusive environment, then its employees will too.

Or as one of my favorite hospitality clients likes to say “fish rots from the head.”

Fingers crossed for Uber that they get it right, and fix whatever issues are festering and detracting from their mission.  Or in the reported words of Ariana Huffington, stop hiring “brilliant jerks.”

A December 2016 publication from the EEOC titled “Depression, PTSD, & Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace: Your Legal Rights” doesn’t exactly break new ground. It does, however, highlight issues that arise repeatedly in disability discrimination cases and, therefore, bear repeating. Here are the key takeaways:

  1. The definition of what constitutes a disability is broader than many realize. The guidance tells employees: “You can get a reasonable accommodation for any mental health condition that would, if left untreated, ‘substantially limit’ your ability to concentrate, interact with others, communicate, eat, sleep, care for yourself, regulate your thoughts or emotions, or do any other ‘major life activity.'” That’s the EEOC’s standard. California’s is even broader.

    Copyright: arquiplay77 / 123RF Stock Photo
    Copyright: arquiplay77 / 123RF Stock Photo
  2. As the guidance warns, employers deciding whether someone can perform the essential functions of a position or whether they pose a significant risk to others may not rely on “myths or stereotypes.” Instead, employers must base those decisions on objective evidence.
  3. Employers trying to gather objective evidence face conflicting obligations. On one hand, they need to understand the employee’s limitations so that they can make an informed decision on offering an accommodation. On the other, they are limited in terms of what they can ask by the employee’s privacy rights. The guidance cautions employees that they may need to disclose information concerning a mental condition when seeking a reasonable accommodation. A publication issued contemporaneously, “The Mental Health Provider’s Role in a Client’s Request for a Reasonable Accommodation at Work,” informs healthcare providers that they also may need to make certain disclosures, provided that they have their patients’ written authorization. In light of these conflicting obligations, employers should focus on the employee’s specific limitations, rather than their underlying cause or diagnosis. Employers also need to ensure that any medical information they do receive is kept confidential.
  4. The way to gather objective evidence on an employee’s limitations and possible accommodations is through the interactive process. Employers need to engage their workers in a frank discussion of the essential functions of the position, whether the employee can perform those essential functions, and what accommodations may be available. I discuss what the interactive process requires in more detail here.
  5. Flexibility is key. The employer must be open to different accommodations that may enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the job. (Here’s a list of possible accommodations.) If a particular accommodation turns out to be ineffective, the employer must consider alternatives. If no accommodation will enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the position, the employer must consider moving the employee to other available positions or placing the employee on an unpaid leave. Considering the employee for other open positions requires more than telling them to apply for whatever interests them. In California, it requires giving the employee “preferential consideration.”
  6. Employers only need to offer a leave of absence if it will help the employee get to a point where he or she can return to work in some capacity. Also, employers don’t have to grant indefinite leaves.
  7. An employer doesn’t have to hire or keep people in jobs they can’t perform.” That encouraging statement comes straight from the EEOC’s guidance. It also cautions employees that “an employer does not have to excuse poor job performance, even if it was caused by a medical condition or the side effects of medication.”

This remains one of the more complicated areas of employment law. Employers that don’t understand the extent of their obligations expose themselves to costly litigation and government investigations.

We recently updated a 15-page Employer’s Guide to Doing Business In California. The guide provides clear summaries of California’s unique requirements for meal and rest periods, the Fair Pay Act, paychecks and wage statements, the various leaves of absence, and more. If you subscribe to that whole “ounce of prevention” theory, this is a great way to see if your company is complying with California’s unique employment law requirements. You can download a pdf of the Guide here.

Spending a little time to determine if your company is sufficiently protected is a lot quicker and cheaper than waiting for a lawsuit and learning first hand why California ranks as the number one judicial hellhole.

Copyright: ibreaker213 / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: ibreaker213 / 123RF Stock Photo

Special thanks to Cristina ArmstrongTyreen Torner, and Sahara Pynes for their work updating prior versions of the guide.

No matter which part of the political spectrum you might find yourself on, whether it be the far left, the alt right, or somewhere in between, this past weekend certainly provides some food for thought applicable to California employers.

Gender equality word cloud
Copyright: arloo / 123RF Stock Photo

The country, and many workplaces, have become increasingly polarized.  Yet many people are craving inclusion and a sense of hope.  Employees want to be valued, appreciated and heard.  Supporters of the new administration certainly voiced a sense of hope that things might change, and that those left behind by a growing economy will see some actions to address their concerns.  The hundreds of thousands of people who marched in various cities across the county, including a reported 750,000 here in Los Angeles, also voiced a need for a sense of inclusion with other like-minded individuals, even if those people may have different views on specific issues.

While discussions about politics in the workplace can be divisive and are universally not recommended, discussions about inclusion are important.  That inclusion can be based on sex, race, sexual orientation, religion, disability or any other category protected by law.  In fact, the law here in California has granted protections to individuals in workplaces who raise concerns about pay equity, discrimination, harassment, and retaliation for raising concerns about any such issues.  So open discussions in the workplace should be welcomed.

Many people are wondering what they can do to make a difference.  On that issue, and as it relates to inclusion in the workplace, here are a few suggestions (several adapted from the Father of a Daughter Initiative):

  • When someone at work opens up to you about an issue they believe is unfair, hear them out and resist the urge to be defensive.  You don’t need to agree, but you can certainly listen and try to understand their point of view.
  • Act to correct issues of bias or micro-inequities you may witness or hear about.  This can be as simple as repeating and emphasizing what someone with less power says at a meeting, while explicitly giving that person credit (“as Maria just said, I agree that we need to ….”).  This concept has been referred to as “shine theory” or “amplification.”
  • If you are in a position of power, make sure to look beyond your regular go-to personnel, and expand your net to someone you may not have considered for a special assignment or important role.
  • Be a visible advocate for those in your workplace less powerful than you are.

My hope, as Co-Chair of my firm’s Womens’ Initiative, is that this weekend’s momentum can be followed by many individual acts of inclusiveness at work.  Change starts with each one of us.  Let’s all be open to alternate points of view, make a difference in our own way, and strive to be a positive influence on those around us.

If you’re a city contractor or private employer in the City of Los Angeles with 10 or more employees, starting January 22, 2017 you will be subject to new restrictions on how you deal with job applicants’ criminal histories. The only employers exempt from these requirements will be those that are required by law to obtain conviction information, are prohibited by law from hiring applicants convicted of a crime, are seeking to fill positions that applicants with convictions are prohibited from holding, or that are filling positions where employees are required to possess or use firearms. All other employers should prepare to take the following steps:

1. Eliminate any questions in your employment applications about criminal histories. Make sure that your recruiters and interviewers also know not to make such inquiries.

2. Include language in all solicitations or advertisements seeking applicants that you will consider qualified applicants with criminal histories in a manner consistent with the Los Angeles Fair Chance Initiative for Hiring.

3. Post a notice informing applicants for employment about the LA Fair Chance Initiative at each workplace, job site, or other location in the City of Los Angeles under your control that job applicants visit. If you have unionized workers, you must also send a copy to the union representing those workers. The City of LA will presumably make such a notice available.

4. Put a “Fair Chance Process” in place. Specifically, after you’ve made a conditional offer of employment, you may ask the applicant about criminal convictions. But you may not withdraw the application based on the response without:

(a) Completing a written assessment that explains the link between the applicant’s criminal history and the risks inherent in the position applied for. This assessment must include discussion of the nature of the offense or conduct that led to the conviction; the time that has passed since the conviction or release from incarceration; and the nature of the position sought. The ordinance allows the Department of Public Works, Bureau of Contract Administration to add to this list of factors in the future.

(b) If you are considering withdrawing a conditional offer of employment, you must first provide the applicant written notice, a copy of the written assessment you created, and any other documents or information supporting the decision. You must then give the applicant five business days to provide any information regarding rehabilitation or other mitigating factors. You must hold the position open during that time.

(c) If the applicant provides such information, you must consider it and complete a written reassessment.

Copyright: welcomia / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: welcomia / 123RF Stock Photo

(d) If you still decide to withdraw the offer, you must then notify the applicant in writing and provide a copy of the reassessment.

5. Maintain all relevant records for three years after receipt of an application for employment.

While the ordinance takes effect January 22, 2017, any violation before July 1, 2017 will result only in a written warning. After that date, employers who make prohibited inquiries are subject to fines of $500 to $2,000 per violation. The fine for failing to include language in an employment advertisement or job posting or for failing to maintain the required records will be $500 per violation. Applicants can also bring civil actions to enforce the ordinance.

LA is not the first city to adopt “Ban the Box” requirements. San Francisco did so in 2014. But LA’s ordinance seems to be the most demanding. Employers are well-advised to consult qualified employment counsel to ensure that they have proper procedures in place for dealing with applicants with criminal backgrounds.

The year end is a time for reflection, and one theme in my practice this year has been the failure of managers (and some HR professionals) to fully understand the interactive process, and to inadvertently cause liability by imposing a 100% healed policy.

Here’s how it often works.  An employee goes out for a medical issue, sometimes work-related, sometimes not.  At some point the employee reaches out about returning to work with some sort of restrictions.

  • The manager believes these restrictions will prevent the employee from performing the job as needed, emails HR and indicates an inability to accommodate the restrictions, and the HR manager takes the manager at her/his word.
  • It is communicated back to the employee that she/he can’t return to work until 100% healed, or fully able to do the job, or similar words.
  • What we have here is a documented example of failure to engage in the interactive process, which equals liability.  Not helpful.
Speech bubbles
Copyright: rawpixel / 123RF Stock Photo

Here’s how it should work.  The same employee raises a medical issue and reaches out about returning to work with some restrictions.

  • The manager partners with HR to get more details on those restrictions, clarify the scope of those restrictions with the  employee as needed (i.e. interact), and documents those discussions.
  • They review the job description (if one exists) to see what is listed as an essential function of the job, understand how others have been accommodated (or not accommodated) in similar situations, and evaluate whether the employee can or cannot perform the essential functions of the job with any accommodation (whether requested or not).
  • They further discuss with the employee (i.e. interact) and document those discussions.
  • Care is taken to be consistent with accommodations granted (or not granted).
  • No one uses the term 100% healed.
  • What we have here is a documented example of engaging in the interactive process, which should equal no liability.  Very helpful.

While both scenarios can yield the same result, one is a trigger for liability, and one is a great defense to a disability discrimination or failure to accommodate/engage in the interactive process claim.  The choice is yours.  And remember, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!

 

I recently participated in a panel discussion about ADA/FEHA reasonable accommodation and interactive process issues for the LA County Bar Association. I presented on a panel with a plaintiff’s attorney and a disability rights expert/mediator.

Doctor's note
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Despite our differing points of view, there were many things we agreed upon, including the need for employers and employees to actively engage together in an interactive dialogue (not monologue) about requested accommodations, and what might work for both the employer and the employee. We agreed that it was necessary and helpful for the employer to document those communications, not only to prove they occurred if challenged, but to avoid misunderstandings. We also agreed that the employer is not required to provide the exact accommodation requested if there are other reasonable accommodations that would achieve the desired result.

Another thing we agreed on was the need for consistency in accommodations, and the problems that occur when one employee is granted a type of accommodation (such as a special parking spot or a schedule change) and another is not, and there is no clear reason why. On that issue, the attendees seemed to like my idea of keeping a Reasonable Accommodation Log, to track how certain issues are accommodated company-wide, and to promote consistency across departments or divisions.

However, one issue that sparked a lot of debate among the panelists (and attendees) was my recommendation to employers to consistently request a doctor’s note to substantiate requests for accommodations, and to facilitate the interactive process. My advice was based on my experience with employees who ask for the moon (such as the stated need for a walking desk, or first class air travel, or a job transfer to a role for a preferred supervisor), but often can’t substantiate those requests with any medical requirement. I argued that since many disabilities are not visible, that accommodation requests can’t be properly evaluated without medical justification. Plus, if you ask for doctor’s notes from some, and not others, then you run into a consistency problem. So my vote is for doctor’s notes.

Boy did I get push-back! My other panelists argued that it is hard for an employee to get a doctor’s note, and often the doctor doesn’t write what they need. They also argued that requiring a note for a small request, or for successive requests, could amount to harassment. I was challenged:  If someone is in a wheelchair are you going to require a note for every structural issue needed to grant full access? To raise the desk, widen the doorway, order transcription equipment, etc.? My answer was “of course not.” I responded that one doctor’s note should cover all of those issues.

So employers are in a bind. If you don’t ask for a doctor’s note, and you accommodate someone out of goodwill, then you could be stuck with that accommodation for a very long time, because once you give it, it is presumed reasonable, and there is a high burden to take it away (which is why some accommodations should be documented as “temporary” by the way). But if you insist on a doctor’s note, the employee feels harassed and pressured.

So what is the answer? I still believe employers should consistently get doctor’s notes, and actually review them to make sure they support the requested accommodation. But ask for them nicely, and be open to granting a temporary accommodation in the meantime.

Here’s your annual roundup of new California employment laws. Since we’ve discussed many of these laws when they were enacted, I’m including links to those earlier discussions.

In addition to statewide legislation, local ordinances continue to proliferate. These include paid parental leave in San Francisco and numerous cities that have enacted their own minimum wage and paid sick leave requirements.

Copyright: alexraths / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: alexraths / 123RF Stock Photo

What can employers do to get ready?

  • Review pay practices to identify potential disparities based on race and ethnicity, as well as gender.
  • Ensure that applications do not elicit information on prior salary or juvenile convictions.
  • Obtain and install appropriate signage for single-user restrooms.
  • Make sure that human resources staff, hiring managers, and supervisors understand the changes affecting them.
  • Wonder what surprises the legislature has for us in the year ahead!

Reasonable accommodation issues are tough.  Employees often want a lot of things that are not justified by a doctor’s note, and appropriately documenting the interactive process can be an uphill battle.

If you are in the LA area and have burning questions about how to reasonably accommodate employees under the ADA and California’s FEHA, then please come hear me speak for the LACBA on October 27th.  Topics for discussion will include:

  • Disability Leave:  How long is too long?  How long do you have to keep the job open during the leave?
  • Interactive Process Communications:  If there is no documentation, can you prove they occurred?
  • Undue Hardship:  Is it ever too hard to accommodate?  How expensive is too much?
  • Assistive Technology:  How does new technology change what’s reasonable? (i.e., is everyone entitled to a headset and a standing or walking desk?)

If you can’t make it, look for a blog post next week on tips discussed and lessons learned.

I have been conducting harassment prevention training for California clients since AB 1825 became effective back in 2005. After presenting what must be hundreds of sessions in the last decade, I am always on the look-out for new topics to discuss, and new hypotheticals to present, and sometimes the universe just cooperates with me. Watching the second Presidential debate last weekend was one of those experiences.

Young businessman arguing with sad stressed coworker
Copyright: vadymvdrobot / 123RF Stock Photo

Since 2015 (AB 2053), California law has required employers to train management on abusive conduct (also known as “bullying”). While bullying is not yet illegal, it should be against most employer policies, and should lead to discipline for employees who violate those policies.

Bullying is defined as workplace conduct, with malice, that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests. The law goes on to say that bullying may include:

  • Derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets;
  • Verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, or humiliating;
  • The gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance.

So let’s consider the following hypothetical:

A group of managers is in a team meeting where each person is supposed to present on their enumerated topics to a group of colleagues. When one manager is talking, the other one (who is physically larger) is pacing behind, making faces, and making noises (something between a snort and a grunt). The hands are gesturing and fingers pointing. The manager pacing also repeatedly interrupts the colleague, either with snide comments, jokes (which get laughs or cheers), or insults. Is this bullying?

Would a reasonable person find this conduct to be hostile? Offensive? Unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests? Is this verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating or humiliating? Absolutely.

In fact, many employment attorneys and HR professionals I know were physically uncomfortable while watching the debate, at least in part because we were witnessing conduct that no reasonable employer could tolerate. While we certainly cannot require free speech to be polite or politically correct, we certainly can and should agree that this type of bullying would not be okay in any workplace.