Whenever a celebrity dies, everyone glorifies their accomplishments. So the eulogies for Koko the talking gorilla aren’t surprising in the least. But those eulogies tend to overlook that Koko’s many accomplishments include having been the first gorilla to be accused of sexual harassment.

As we explained in the story linked to above, two women sued the Gorilla Foundation in 2004 claiming that they were pressured to expose themselves to “indulge Koko’s nipple fetish.” Is it just me or does it sound far-fetched for someone to claim to be sexually harassed by a gorilla? The case settled for undisclosed terms.

Rest in Peace, Koko. It would have been an honor to defend you. I’m sorry that you never got your day in court. Were you even deposed?

Over the past few months, I have read blogs and opinion columns about whether alleged sexual harassers have been proclaimed guilty by their employers and the media without due process.  That is, are companies rushing to fire bad actors in the wake of the “me too” movement unfairly?

Some accused harassers are taking a play from Twisted Sister, saying “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and are seeking legal counsel to help.  In the past, lawsuits filed by alleged harassers have been few and far between, but a new case filed against HSBC bank a few weeks ago in New York, plus few threatened lawsuits we have seen, make me wonder if this will be a new trend.

Let’s talk about what due process entails.  The term “due process” is a legal term found in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which states that the government cannot deprive citizens of “life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” As would be expected, dozens of Supreme Court cases clarify the procedural and substantive elements of “due process.”  Notably absent is a due process requirement in the private employment context.

Employers have more flexibility to set parameters for employees than, let’s say, a judge has in a criminal proceeding.  And that makes sense.  But employers can still face liability for an inadequate investigation as discussed by my colleague Jeff Polsky.  Specifically, the standard for investigating harassment claims in California was established in the 1998 case Cotran v. Rollins Hudig Hall International, Inc., 1998 Cal. LEXIS 1 (January 5, 1998).  The court established employers must simply have a “reasonable and good faith belief” supporting any adverse action taken against an employee.  Given that employment lawyers are seeing the number of harassment claims in the workplace rise, employers should also be prepared for increased push back by alleged harassers.  Some of the ways employers can protect themselves, their workplaces, and ensure an adequate investigation and their own version of “due process” are found here.

Every year I look forward to attending and presenting at the Cornell HR in Hospitality Conference.  It is a great time to connect with clients, contacts, and to learn from the best and brightest in the hospitality industry.

Group of people discussing human resources around a tableThe three big themes this year seemed to be:  (1) #metoo and the many repercussions thereof; (2) the struggle to get the best talent in an era of low unemployment; and (3) the uncertainty of immigration laws and how to best protect valued employees and still comply with the changing legal landscape.

On the issue of #metoo (an issue we have blogged about many times over), my takeaways were:

  • Implement a “safe word” for colleagues to use with each other if someone is making them uncomfortable for any reason, without having to go to HR; I note my millennial niece often simply announces “uncomfortable.”
  • It is important for leaders (especially male leaders) to really listen to women and how these issues have impacted them, and not simply “mansplain” (and if you don’t know what that means you are likely doing it).

On the issue of recruiting the best talent, there was lots of talk about how to define the company culture in a way that attracts desired recruits.  One panel discussed performance assessments and how they are too long and complicated, and often do not mirror the company’s cultural values.  Some ideas there were:

  • Simplify and shorten
  • Provide reviews quarterly instead of annually
  • Ask fun questions:  What is your superpower and why?
  • Make them forward looking
  • Embrace anonymous 360 reviews, up and down the scale, so candid feedback can be provided

And finally, on the issue of immigration, on the one hand there is compassion for employees.  One panelist told a story about an employee who needed time off because her mother was deported and at 20 years old (and a citizen), she was suddenly responsible for the care of her 6 year old sister.

On the other hand, employers also have to deal with AB 450 (the California Immigration Worker Protection Act), which prohibits CA employers from granting access to immigration officials at a place of labor without a judicial warrant.  As of last week, this law is being challenged under federal law.  In addition, there is increased Federal I9 enforcement, so employers with concerns in that area should be proactive in reviewing those I9s.  Bottomline, it is time to have immigration counsel on speed dial, or subscribe to our firm’s blog on that subject.

All in all, a great conference.  Hope to see you there next year (March 25-27, 2019 at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas)!

 

It’s been five months since the #MeToo movement burst onto the scene. Since then, the headlines have been dominated with accusations of grossly inappropriate behavior by prominent politicians, entertainers, business people, and others. So it’s somewhat surprising that, according to acting EEOC Commissioner Victoria Lipnic (as reported in Law360 (subscription required)), the number of sexual harassment claims being filed with her agency hasn’t changed. Why is that?

One reason may be that employers are being more proactive. Those of us who do harassment prevention training are certainly doing more of it than in prior years. So perhaps (he said, trying to sound optimistic) employers are putting more emphasis on preventing harassment and those efforts are paying off.

Another explanation may be that employers are settling pre-litigation to avoid the devastating publicity that can accompany these claims, particularly with higher-profile defendants.

Also, many of the accusations that figure so prominently in the media involve conduct that occurred many years ago. Employees generally have no more than a year to bring these claims. So conduct occurring before then, no matter how offensive, will not be legally actionable.

Finally, it may be that the claims are working their way through the system. Before filing a lawsuit or a charge with a government agency, plaintiffs’ lawyers may be interviewing witnesses and lining up support for their clients’ claims. That process takes time.

Whatever the reason, employers shouldn’t let their guards down. They should continue to ensure that their harassment policies are legally compliant, that they appropriately investigate complaints of bad behavior, and that their managers are trained about their obligations in providing a harassment-free workplace. While there has not been a big upsurge in harassment claims yet, it only takes one to devastate your company.

When an employer gets sued for sexual harassment, the focus is not on what the alleged harasser did. It’s on what the employer did to provide its employees a harassment-free work environment. This includes both steps taken before anyone complains and steps taken in response to the complaint. So if your goal is to prevent your company getting sued for harassment, there are 12 steps you can (and should) take now. In fact, California law requires these things be present in all harassment policies.

  1. List all the categories currently protected under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, i.e., race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, and military or veteran status.
  2. State that the policy prohibits harassment by co-workers, supervisors, managers, and third parties with whom the employee comes into contact. (That’s basically everyone, isn’t it?)
  3. Provide confidentiality, to the extent possible, for complaints.
  4. Promise timeliness. This is a point of emphasis. The regulations require “a timely response,” “timely investigations,” and “timely closures.”
  5. State that investigations will be impartial and conducted by qualified personnel.
  6. State that investigations will be documented and tracked for reasonable progress.
  7. Provide “appropriate options for remedial actions and resolutions.”
  8. Designate personnel to receive complaints, while stating that employees are not required to complain to their immediate supervisors.
  9. Instruct supervisors whom to direct complaints to. Don’t let them investigate on their own, unless they’re trained to do so.
  10. Indicate that the employer will conduct a fair, timely (there’s that word again!), and thorough investigation that provides all parties with appropriate due process and reaches a reasonable conclusion based on the evidence.
  11. Indicate that, if misconduct is found, the employer will take appropriate remedial measures.
  12. Prohibit retaliation.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that harassment claims have been in the news a lot lately. The first line of defense is having a compliant policy in place. Not allowing your employees to ever interact with customers, supervisors, vendors, or each other may also be effective, but that doesn’t seem to work for many businesses.

 

The #MeToo movement has understandably made employers more concerned about sexual relations between coworkers. An office romance may seem consensual, but is it really? This is especially problematic when there’s a power differential – such as a supervisor-subordinate relationship.

So what can employers do to prevent coworker relations that they fear may end in a sexual harassment claim? Certainly, employers can establish rules and internal policies discouraging coworker relations. But, as recently affirmed by the Ninth Circuit in Perez v. City of Roseville, there are constitutional limits on what public employers, like State and municipal governments, can do if they discover a consensual office romance.

Coworkers sitting across from each other with heart, symbolizing office romanceIn Perez, the City of Roseville, California investigated police officers Janelle Perez and Shad Begley after Begley’s wife reported that Begley and Perez engaged in sexual conduct while on duty. The investigation revealed that the officers were involved in an extramarital affair, but the City could not prove that they engaged in sexual conduct while on duty. Begley and Perez were written up for violating department policies. A short time later, Perez was fired, purportedly for performance reasons unrelated to the affair. Perez sued, alleging that “her termination violated her constitutional right to privacy and intimate association because it was impermissibly based in part on disapproval of her private, off-duty sexual conduct.” The lower court granted summary judgment for the defendants and Perez appealed.

The Ninth Circuit reversed in part, finding triable issues of fact as to whether Perez was fired for engaging in constitutionally-protected private sexual conduct. The court said: “[T]he constitutional guarantees of privacy and free association prohibit the State from taking adverse employment action on the basis of private sexual conduct unless it demonstrates that such conduct negatively affects on-the-job performance or violates a constitutionally permissible, narrowly tailored regulation.”

In a nutshell, Perez establishes that, at least within the Ninth Circuit (including California), a public employer cannot take adverse action on the basis of an employee’s private, off-duty sexual activity, unless the employer demonstrates that the conduct caused the employee’s job performance to suffer. This holding arguably extends to employees in the private sector too, who are subject to the same constitutional right to privacy and intimate association.

Takeaway: The #MeToo movement has led many employers to believe that all office romances are off-limits and constitute a fireable offense. Not so. At least within the Ninth Circuit, public employers cannot fire employees for private, off-duty sexual conduct that does not adversely impact job performance. Of course, employers can and must address non-consensual conduct and conduct that creates a sexually hostile work environment. But that does not give employers the right to intrude into relationships outside of work that do not directly impact the workplace.

If you have a questions about sexual harassment, office romance, or employee privacy rights, our employment attorneys are here to help.

I read an article yesterday about a writer accused of sexual harassment.  So what, you are probably thinking? While articles like that are commonplace these days, what infuriated me was that the individual had been investigated multiple times for sexual harassment related misconduct.  The alleged harassment occurred at numerous companies, with prominent HR departments, yet each time he was fired or left for a new job, his new employer had no idea about his past behavior.  And I feel partly to blame for that.

As an employment lawyer, we advise our clients that best practices with regard to references is to establish a policy where the company simply confirms dates of employment and job title(s) held.  We used to allow salary confirmation upon request of the departed employee, but that is no longer advised under California’s Fair Pay Act.  So, we have inadvertently created a system where alleged harassers (and other terminated employees) get to move on and become someone else’s (client’s) problem. The primary concerns in opting not to give a substantive reference is fear of a defamation lawsuit or tortious interference with a business opportunity claim under Labor Code section 1050.  There are many resources on the intricacies of these claims, so I won’t get into them here.

While there is no duty to provide a reference and saying nothing is still the most conservative course of action, I think some employers will want to be more progressive in the #metoo era and I’d like to give some guidelines on how not to sweep this under the proverbial rug.

  • California employers are protected by a qualified “common interests” privilege against defamation claims as a result of giving reference checks. So long as statements are based on credible evidence and are made without malice, employer references are given a special privilege that forms the basis of a defense against defamation.  California courts have regularly supported this employer privilege in the interest of public policy, which is now more prominent than ever.
  • If you have an existing policy on references, be consistent in following it, or change it to something you are comfortable with.
  • Designate one person to handle all references so the conduct and statements of individual managers don’t become a liability for the company.
  • If you opt to provide a substantive reference, the reference should not be misleading. Don’t give a glowing reference for an employee terminated for misconduct or there could be liability for fraud or misrepresentation, plus the potential for a wrongful termination suit from the alleged harasser.  The best bet is to be truthful, without providing too many unnecessary details.
  • Some examples of how to give a negative reference without disclosing details include: ineligible for rehire, investigated for policy violations or was the subject of complaints by coworkers.
  • While the fear (and fear of the expense) of being sued is enough to chill employers into keeping their mouths shut, and consequently perpetuating a cycle of harassment or other bad behavior, the reality is there are very few published cases on this in California, leading me to believe that while the risk is real, this isn’t likely to be a money-maker for the plaintiff’s bar.

Finally, while there is pending California legislation in the form of SB 820 that would prohibit confidentiality clauses in any sexual harassment settlement agreements, so far there are no added protections for employers providing substantive references.

The decision of how much, if any, information to provide, involves an individualized risk assessment, but I can see California’s public policy interest as a strong driving force in changing the current “no comment” practices of many employers.

I don’t know Aziz Ansari and I can’t purport to know what happened in his apartment on the night of the first date that has headlined the news this week.  But, after 17 years as a labor & employment attorney, with a concentration in counseling on more than 100 sexual harassment claims in the workplace, I thought I would add a few nuggets to the conversation.

The claims against Ansari invoke the stickiest of scenarios, though they did not occur in the workplace.  An anonymous complainant, a consensual sexual encounter, the allure of a suitor with “power”, regret, and poor communication…Translating these factors into a workplace investigation can cause some pitfalls for even the best HR departments.

  • A significant percentage of complainants want to remain anonymous, presumably for fear of retaliation. While employers should not guarantee that any aspect of the investigation will be kept confidential, employers should limit details on a need-to-know basis.
  • Confronting an alleged harasser when an employer can’t or chooses not to disclose the identity of the complainant or details of the complaint is really tough.  Accused employees want to be able to appropriately defend themselves and California requires a “fair, prompt and thorough” investigation.
  • Because employers have to balance the investigation with the need to maintain a harassment-free workplace, employers aren’t required to know with absolute certainty that harassment occurred in order to take disciplinary action. The legal standard is an objectively reasonable belief that misconduct occurred (after a fair and objective investigation, which I’ll get to in a moment).
  • While the standard for an adequate investigation includes notice of the claimed misconduct and a chance for the employee to respond, this standard was set before the ubiquity of texts, and sometimes I see some really blatant and incriminating texts which make it easier for an employer to take action.
  • Once action is taken, the type of response an employer needs to give to the complainant is another source of disagreement.  Complainants want details about all aspects of the investigation, including who said what.  Yet employers want to safeguard not only the complainant’s rights, but the privacy rights of the accused and witnesses. A typical response you may have seen is that the matter has been handled and appropriate action has been taken.  Employers aren’t required to give details and if too many details are given, an accused may claim defamation.
  • Finally, harassment policies need to have specific information on prohibited conduct, reporting and investigation procedures, and no-retaliation.  Consensual relationships between supervisors and staff they manage should be prohibited to avoid the potential for coercion claims.  I have seen many cases where a complainant contends they engaged in the sexual conduct consensually, but because they felt pressured to do so or it was “easier” than saying no. It’s best to remove the power/control element of a workplace relationship.

There are no easy answers here and every single complaint of harassment is unique.  But in the effort to support victims, employers should not forget the reasonableness standards set by our courts and the balancing acts that need to occur during the course of an investigation.

More than ever before, the topic of sexual harassment is dominating the news (and this blog).  It’s time to make sure that your company’s sexual harassment prevention training is up to the task.

Fox Rothschild’s skilled team of attorney trainers will tailor a program to meet your company’s needs.  Take a break from the online routine, and make sure that your next sexual harassment prevention training session is a “wow,” not just a check-the-box compliance item.

38610418 – wow! comic speech bubble, cartoon

To learn more, check out this alert featuring our Los Angeles team.