After a flurry of activity in February, the news has been relatively quiet at Uber until this week.  We knew that reports of harassment by lady engineers triggered a massive investigation, and at the time, news reports indicated a formal report was due by the end of April.  But that day came and went.  Now, the wait is over, and Uber is in the news again.  Here is the latest:

Businessman cutting back jobs
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According to a report from Bloomberg, at least 20 Uber executives have been fired as part of the harassment probe, and more are being disciplined, after a law firm investigated a stunning 215 claims of sexual harassmentAccording to reporting, of the 215 claims, 57 remain under investigation, 31 employees received counseling or training, and 7 received written warnings.

The New York Times also reported that Uber’s President of Asia Operations, and a longtime confidant of CEO Travis Kalanick, was fired after “reporters inquired about his actions to obtain the medical records of a woman who said she was raped by a driver” in India.

Meanwhile another law firm is also conducting an investigation led by former US Attorney General Eric Holder into claims made by Susan Fowler and other female engineers in February.  That investigation apparently is still ongoing.

In addition other senior executives are resigning for various reasons, including Uber’s Vice President of Product and Growth who reportedly resigned once an affair with an employee was revealed, as well as a female Global Policy and Communications Chief who resigned amid reported clashes with the CEO.

Yes harassment issues still reign in California, and top executives can lose their jobs because of it.  Even people who once seemed untouchable can fall from grace.

It remains to be seen if Uber’s new hires, including Francis Frei, a well-known Harvard academic who was recently hired as Uber’s first Senior Vice President of Leadership and Strategy, can transform the super aggressive “bro-culture” into one of diversity and inclusion.

Stay tuned.

I was recently invited to contribute a chapter on employment law to the 2017 Israel Desk International Legal Guide. As more and more Israeli companies bring their operations to the U.S., they learn firsthand the intricacies of our employment laws. The chapter outlines six trends that I suggested that they pay attention to. They include wage and hour laws, equal pay, accommodating disabled workers, whistleblower claims, local regulations, and trade secrets.

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On the topic of trade secrets, I had the opportunity to give a presentation in Tel Aviv last month on Protecting Your Trade Secrets in Silicon Valley and Beyond to members of IATI (Israel Advanced Technology Industries – an industry group for high-tech and life science companies). You can read my chapter on legal trends and see a copy of my presentation on trade secrets.

Fox Rothschild LLP’s Israel Practice Group is adept at helping companies based in Israel with their U.S. legal needs.

Yes, I am still obsessed about all things Uber these days.  That said, I have been ruminating over one development last week that just didn’t sit right with me.

On the one hand, I know firsthand how that bro-centric culture can be devastating.  Just a few years ago I knew a young woman working in tech.  She had just spent two years in a management training program and earned a coveted placement in her first choice department working for a very well-regarded young manager.  One late night at work he confessed that he was totally attracted to her, and very distracted by it.  He then began to text her very personal messages.  She was horrified.  Didn’t know what to do.  Wondered if she had done something wrong.  I advised her to talk to HR and to document that discussion to protect herself from retaliation.  HR was empathetic and asked her what she wanted to do.  She wanted to stay in the role (moving just after she just got the job would have been impossible to explain).  But the creepy unwanted attention had to stop.  Presumably the manager was counseled, and she stayed.  But then he essentially froze her out.  Only talked to the men on the team.  She felt like an outcast, and shortly thereafter, quit for a better job.

Let’s also be clear, if even 10% of what the former employees at Uber are saying is true, then Uber has quite a problem.  The more recent account was particularly upsetting.

All of that said, being a lawyer trains you to see both sides to every story.  I have often seen employees take one situation that has a kernel of truth, and spin it wildly into a much more elaborate story than it actually was.  I have seen careers (typically of men) ruined by allegations.

That brings me back to Uber.  News reports last week stated that a senior executive was asked by the CEO to resign when it was uncovered that he had left his former employer amid harassment allegations.  He apparently had not told Uber when hired, and now, given the investigation and the press, it was better for Uber that he resign.  What’s wrong with this picture?

Employee termination
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For me (and not knowing anything other than the news reports), it just didn’t sit right.  An allegation is just that.  Just like being arrested does not mean the person committed a crime.  Nothing has been proven.  And there was no report of anything this executive did wrong at Uber, just what he may have done wrong at a prior employer.  Nor was there any report of any misrepresentations he made to get hired.  Remember, an applicant is not required to disclose allegations against him to future employers.

So here’s a tip for you:  Ask your applicants if they were ever terminated or asked to resign in lieu of termination.  Or better yet, put that question on your employment application.  Any later discovered misrepresentation to that direct question would certainly be a problem.  But if that question wasn’t asked, is it right for someone to be forced out?

Scapegoating is a quick answer to a much deeper problem.  I don’t want us to assume all men in tech are bad eggs or label them all as harassers.  Let’s have some due process for all people accused of policy violations.  As I explained here, due process starts with an unbiased investigation.  And then, if after a fair investigation, someone is found to have used poor judgment or violated a policy, then that person should be let go.  A witch hunt is not the answer.

Investigating a harassment complaint is not rocket science, yet as the recent news from Uber illustrates, there are many ways for employers to mess it up.

Investigation and technology
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The first step is to gather sufficient details to understand the scope of the issue.  Former Uber employee Susan Fowler’s viral blog post certainly did that, and the CEO, Travis Kalanick, apparently got an earful at his all-hands meeting last week.

Once the gravity of the issue is known, the next step is to devise an investigation plan, and figure out who should conduct the investigation.  Sometimes it makes sense to use the company’s internal HR department.  Yet, when higher levels of management are involved, or there is an alleged systemic problem, the HR department is not the best choice.  In fact, they may be part of the problem.

Sometimes it makes sense to go to a trusted outside advisor or law firm, especially when that advisor knows the company, its culture, and the management team.  There is less ramp up time to understand the players at issue, as well as the company’s dynamics and policies.  This seems to have been Uber’s approach in appointing Eric Holder and his law firm to investigate last week, along with oversight by board member, Ariana Huffington, and the new internal Head of HR.

But alas, that is a problem too.  The investigator must be perceived as unbiased and independent.  The investigator must be someone employees trust and are not afraid to talk to.  Retaliation is a real concern for employees.  If the investigator or his firm is seen as too close to management, then employees may not speak fully and honestly, thereby undermining the investigative process.  This very issue seems to be what two of Uber’s investors were concerned about when they wrote that they were “disappointed” that Uber “chose a group of insiders to conduct the probe.”  While some oversight by a designated board member, and the current head of HR often makes sense, in this case, it is viewed by some (including the two investors) as “an example of Uber’s continued unwillingness to be open, transparent, and direct.”

In fairness to Holder and his law firm, they may very well be independent.  But appearances matter, and for the past week, the optics for Uber are not looking good, and the persistent fallout has not abated.

The lesson here is when a complaint comes in, it is critical to assess the issue and carefully plan the investigation.  Decisions about who should conduct it, and who the investigator will report to and work with at the company during the investigation as it evolves and expands, are just as important as taking prompt action.  A mistake at this early juncture can taint the whole process.

Hopefully for Uber, that will not be the case.  As the investors’ letter states, this “will be defining for the company, so the stakes are high to get it right.”  Time will tell.  To be continued …

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
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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
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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
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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!