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.

It’s time once again for the 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.

  • Stop asking about salary history – AB 168 bars employers from asking job applicants about their previous salary. The legislation’s goal 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 employers and employees who must disclose their prior salary. Employers should ensure that their job applications don’t seek prohibited information and that those interviewing applicants know not to ask these questions.
  • More employers must offer parenting leave – SB 63, officially titled the Parental Leave Act, requires employers with between 20 and 49 employees to offer parenting leave that mirrors the Family Medical Leave Act. The new Act allows employees who work for a covered employer to take 12-weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave if they have worked a minimum of 1,250 hours in the 12-months prior to taking leave.  Employees can take leave only for the purpose of bonding with a newborn child, adopted child or foster child within a year of the birth or placement. Covered employers will also need to maintain health coverage under the same terms as an active employee. The Act also prohibits discrimination and retaliation against an employee for taking parental leave.The Parental Leave Act does not require employers to pay any portion of the leave but requires that employees be able to use accrued sick and vacation time. Employees can apply to have a portion of the parental leave paid for through the state’s Paid Family Leave program.  As we’ve previously explained, San Francisco requires some employers to pay a remaining portion of parental leave.
  • Expanded harassment training – California requires at least biannual harassment training for supervisors in companies with 50 or more employees. Having given a dozen sessions of the  training in the last month, I can assure you that there’s no shortage of material to talk about. But as of January 1, 2018, SB 396 requires that the training include information on gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. If your handbook doesn’t specifically prohibit discrimination and harassment on those bases, you’re overdue for a revision.
  • Ban the box – Following the leads of San Francisco and Los Angeles, AB 1008 prohibits employers with five or more employees from:
    • Asking on employment applications about criminal convictions;
    • Asking applicants about criminal convictions before making a conditional offer of employment;
    • When conducting background checks on applicants, considering, distributing, or disseminating information about prior arrests not leading to conviction, participation in diversion programs, or convictions that have been sealed, dismissed, expunged, or otherwise nullified.

Employers who wish to rely on criminal conviction information to withdraw a conditional job offer must notify the applicant of their preliminary decision, give them a copy of the report (if any), explain the applicants right to respond, give them at least five business days to do so, and then wait five more business days to decide when an applicant contests the decision. There are exceptions for employers who operate health facilities hiring employees who will have regular access to patients or drugs.

  • Minimum wage increases – On January 1, 2018, the California state minimum wage goes up to $11.00 per hour for businesses with 26 or more employees and $10.50 per hour for smaller companies. The inimitable Sahara Pynes discusses which cities are raising their minimum wages here.

Takeaway: The burdens of employing people in California continue to increase. As a result, it becomes increasingly important for employers to be proactive in determining before they get sued where they’re vulnerable. In terms of time, expense, stress, disruption, and damage to a company’s reputation, an audit of HR practices is way cheaper than a lawsuit.

Takeaway 2: Happy 2018!

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.

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.