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.

There are few things I love more in life other than dogs and beer. So when I saw this article I was delighted! A beer company, called BrewDog, has decided to pay its employees a week of new puppy leave dubbed “pawternity” or “mutternity” leave when an employee gets a new puppy or adopts a dog.

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In my adult life I have raised three puppies, and each time I took “puppyernity leave” for the first week the puppy was home. Many clients, colleagues, and even opposing counsel were super supportive (and requested pictures). For those who love pets, especially puppies, they understand how hard that first week can be, and how little sleep you get.  Raising a puppy (or adopting a dog) is a tremendously joyous time, but it is also a big time commitment!

On a related issue, many clients have asked me if the various paid sick leave statutes coming up in cities all over the country allow time off for sick pets. My answer has been “not yet.” Unless, of course, you live in the city of Emeryville, and need sick time to care for a guide dog, signal dog, or service dog.

So let’s give a shout out to San Francisco, the most liberal city in the US. Come on now. Get on the puppy train. Let’s get some puppy leave ordinance drafted and expand sick leave to include pets. Oh, and while you are at it, make it mandatory to allow pets into all work spaces! Ok, maybe that one can wait. But are you really going to let a beer company based in Glasgow do more for employees (and their canine babies) than a business in San Francisco?

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The claim du jour is website accessibility.

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

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

Get up to speed on this new legal issue here!

All of this news about hurricanes and the tragic images of people losing their homes (and everything in them), takes me back to advice my father gave me years ago, which was:  You need insurance for things you can’t afford to replace.

The same is true for businesses.  They need insurance for losses they can’t afford to sustain.  Yet, employers often don’t spend enough time thinking about insurance, until of course they need it, and are disappointed with the scope of protections provided.

I often see this with clients with regard to EPLI (Employment Practices Liability Insurance).  Some employers think they have it, but get sued by a former employee and find out they don’t have coverage.  But even those who have EPLI are not strategic enough about the scope of coverage they need.  Which brings me to my list of considerations:

Deductible:  How much of a deductible can you afford?  And what incentive does that provide in litigation? 

EPLI deductibles often range between $25,000 and $250,000.  A $25,000 deductible means that the business can afford a lot of litigation (if it wants to make a point of fighting to deter other claims).  A $150,000 or higher deductible may just cover larger losses, and motivate early settlements to save on the deductible.  A $75,000 deductible can be a reasonable middle ground (to either encourage settlements or litigate).  That said, I have had more than one mediator suggest that a client just pay the $75,000 deductible to settle because they will pay that much anyway if litigation proceeds. 

Choice of Counsel.  Many EPLI policies require certain law firms be used.  Others suggest that firms can be waived in.  Whether an off-panel firm to can waive in will depend on the insurance carrier.  Many times I have seen clients unable to get a desired firm approved. 

Attorney Rates.  Just about all carriers limit the rates that attorneys can charge.  But some also limit the rates that the client can pay.  Years ago it was typical for an employer to pay its law firm one rate, and then get partial reimbursement from the carrier for the approved (lower rate).  But now, many carriers prohibit that practice.  

Is Wage/Hour Covered?  Typically wage-and-hour coverage is excluded unless a separate rider is purchased.  And that separate rider is very much like earthquake insurance in California with a relatively high cost, high deductible, and limited coverage.  Many wage-and-hour riders have a $100,000 or higher deductible (that only covers defense costs and not damages).  And often defense costs are capped at some amount after the deductible as well.  For example, a policy may only cover $100,000 in defense costs after a $100,000 deductible; so the only real coverage is on the second $100,000 in attorneys’ fees.

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The time to think about these issues, and negotiate them (to the extent you can), is before you purchase or renew the policy, not after.  And while it isn’t fun to think about insurance, remember what my father said, it is important for those losses you simply can’t afford. 

The news is full of stories of employers taking action, or allegedly not taking sufficient action, for employee off duty conduct.  The issues are vast and varied, ranging from communicating views about coworkers’ intellectual capabilities, to using drugs with prostitutes in hotel rooms, to being “outed” for participating in a controversial and violent rally.

What is interesting from an employment law perspective, is whether and when a private sector employer can take action against an employee for off duty conduct.  My partner wrote a blog post on the issue that focused on federal law and related First Amendment protections.  But as is so often the case, California employers need to also comply with state laws that provide an extra layer of protection to employees.

In fact, California limits how much a private sector employer can do to regulate lawful off duty conduct occurring during nonworking hours off premises, including exercising free speech rights and engaging in political activity.  Other states, including New York and Colorado, do so as well.

When faced with facts about an employee’s off duty conduct, I typically recommend a four step analysis.

  1. First, was the alleged conduct unlawful?  Sometimes the answer is clear, such as shooting up illegal drugs.  But for the worker attending a rally, that analysis is a bit more complicated and likely fact dependent.
  2. Second, was the alleged conduct a violation of any company policy?  An employer can always enforce its various policies, including harassment prevention, conflict-of-interest, equal employment opportunity, prohibitions on illegal drug use, etc.
  3. Third, is the policy being enforced consistently?  Inconsistent application of a legitimate policy can be considered discriminatory.
  4. And finally, does the company have a bigger picture goal to take a particular stand?  Often it makes strategic sense for public relations, customer relations, and sometimes even employee relations purposes for a company to take a particular position on an employee’s off duty conduct, even if it results in some legal risk.  Such calculated risks are part of everyday business decisions.

So, if an employee attends a political rally that is offensive to the employer’s views, a termination for that alone (without an associated policy violation) would be problematic.  Or if an employee communicates with coworkers about a belief about one sex’s genetic lack of ability to be effective at work, and that employee has no supervisory authority, then a termination could run afoul of applicable law (not to mention get the attention of the NLRB as protected concerted activity).  Or if an executive takes drugs in a hotel room all night long, but comes to work and performs fine, then addressing that conduct could be problematic.  The particular facts of each situation matter.

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The reality is that the steps a private sector employer can (and should) take are actually more nuanced than what the normal knee-jerk reaction would suggest.  And one could certainly argue that is the way it should be.  Should an employer really police what its employees do after hours?  Does it matter if it doesn’t impact their job?  Where is the line where such conduct does impact the job (or the employer’s brand)?  The answer may be clear when the conduct is blatantly illegal or an unambiguous policy violation, but short of that, the line can be very blurry indeed.

So many times an employer gets in trouble for following logic instead of the law.  Quite often what is logical just isn’t legal, and that can be tricky for many managers and HR professionals.  It trips them up.  That’s why one of my favorite topics to speak about is Employment Law Bloopers and Lessons Learned.

If you are interested in this topic, and like to learn employment law from stories (instead of detailed powerpoints with dense legal citations), then you have two chances to come hear me speak.  First, on August 28th at the California HR Conference in Long Beach, and second on August 29th at the FIRMA (Foodservice Industry Risk Management Association) Conference in Fullerton.

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One of the bloopers I will be talking about is “Ignoring Warning Signs from Top Performers.”  Those who read my blog posts know this is an issue close to my heart.  And it is all over the news regardless of industry, from tech, to media, to entertainment, to universities and more.  Other bloopers involve skipping steps when dealing with the interactive process and reasonable accommodation, retaliation, and the mistakes people make with emails and social media (like those texts we see in litigation from managers to employees sent in the wee hours of the morning on issues unrelated to work … you get the idea).

Come be entertained on August 28th or 29th and learn a few things too!

Summer is the time for vacations, and with that comes the stress of balancing work pressures while out of the office. Many employees prefer not to take vacations when the alternative is trying to conduct work from a cell phone on the beach. Maybe California can learn from France, and the recently publicized “right to disconnect”.

Woman working on the beach on vacation
Copyright: haveseen / 123RF Stock Photo

The French Government has acknowledged the impact of persistent connectivity on both the economy and employee well-being. Since January 1st, French employees have a right to unplug. According to a report for the French Government covered in Time, “with this accumulation of emails, and these employees who return exhausted from the weekend because they have not disconnected, it is not the best way to be effective in companies.”

It is no surprise that work-related stress adds to healthcare costs. In fact, a group of Stanford business professors have estimated that workplace stress added between $125 and $190 billion dollars per year to America’s healthcare costs; overwork accounted for $48 billion of that, according to Fortune.

A never-ending connection to the workplace is certainly a significant source of stress, and the costs of stress are largely borne by employers. So France’s email restrictions could provide benefit to both workers and employers.

France’s “right to disconnect” does not necessarily mean that the employee must be completely unplugged while out of the office. Rather, the idea is to encourage employers to set up policies to address the flood of emails outside of work hours. For example, to establish more reasonable expectations for returning emails, or to avoid sending non-urgent emails outside working hours.

In fact, many French and even European companies have introduced guidelines prohibiting late afternoon staff meetings and emails outside working hours.

On the one hand, more regulation of work relationships is not welcome. But in France, news reports indicate that many companies have found increased productivity from employees returning to work refreshed and relaxed after important down time. And increased productivity, as well as less chance of off-the-clock claims by non-exempt employees answering emails after work, are both good things.

When was the last time you felt refreshed, relaxed, and reinvigorated at work? If it has been too long, maybe the French way is something for California employers to consider.

Many thanks to Natahaelle Gozlan for her contributions to this post.

Just because it’s logical doesn’t make it legal. And more often than not, what is logical in California is not necessarily legal.

Take the issue of “comp time.” Typically comp time is used to refer to an equitable idea, where someone works when she isn’t supposed to, and in turn is given different time off as “comp time.” Often such comp time is taken off the books, such as an “extra” vacation day that is not logged as such. That can mean the employer has time records that are purposely inconsistent with hours worked. And that’s a problem.

For exempt employees, comp time is really a misnomer. An exempt employee is paid a salary regardless of hours worked (or not worked) in a week. So an exempt employee who works hard one day still gets paid the same as one who doesn’t. Giving an exempt employee a “comp day” for working on a holiday or a 6th day is really just appropriately treating them as exempt. More often than not, the exempt employee is still checking in (i.e., “working” from home) anyway.

For non-exempt employees in California, such a practice is especially fraught with minefields. The key to paying non-exempt employees correctly is to make sure hours worked (and breaks taken) are accurately logged. So, if a non-exempt employee works on a day she typically is scheduled off, she must be paid for that time, even if it results in daily or weekly overtime. If she’s not paid, that’s illegal. Also, paying her for another day when she hasn’t worked, by putting fake hours on a timesheet, is also a problem, as it sets a precedent for falsifying time records.

Of course, the employer can log the day as a paid “comp day,” but in my experience, most employers don’t have that payroll code, and if they do, they don’t use it consistently. And treating employees inconsistently creates another set of issues.

I have experienced employers get sued for inconsistent comp day practices. It can be from exempt employees who claim they are owed a certain number of comp days for holidays worked (when they were supposed to get another day off but never did). That allegation typically comes with a claim for waiting time penalties for failure to pay all wages upon termination. Or, it can be from non-exempt employees who were given comp time instead of being paid overtime. Even if they agreed to it at the time (“don’t worry boss, I’ll take tomorrow off instead of getting the overtime“), it still doesn’t make it legal.

Back in May there was some press about the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2017 that passed the US House of Representatives, and was moving on to the US Senate for deliberations. But even if that passes and amends the FLSA to allow for comp time instead of overtime, it will not apply in California. Why?

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Always remember that California is special, and when it comes to wage-and-hour law, what is logical is typically illegal.

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.