Harassment Investigations

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.

Thorough investigations can protect employers from claims that their decisions were discriminatory, retaliatory, or in bad faith. Conversely, a defective investigation can increase an employers’ exposure to those same claims. Consider, for example, Viana v. FedEx Corporate Services, an unpublished Ninth Circuit opinion issued on March 22, 2018. The appellate panel in that case overturned summary judgment for the employer because (among other things) there were issues regarding the adequacy of the investigation. The court noted, for example, that there was evidence that the supervisor conducting the investigation referred to the plaintiff using derogatory and sexist terms and failed to get the plaintiff’s side of the story before deciding to terminate.

To help ensure that your investigation strengthens your ability to support whatever decision you ultimately make, follow these ground rules:

  1. Pick a qualified investigator — You want someone who’s far enough from the situation to be impartial and who has experience investigating these types of issues. It also needs to be someone who understands how to question witnesses. (Now the cynics out there may be thinking that I’m just saying that so people hire us to do their investigations. To that I respond: 1)  If people follow these steps, there will be less harassment litigation, and therefore less work for me and my ilk; and 2) It’s not as if the goal of this blog is to repel clients.)
  2. Follow your company policies — The policies are there for a reason. Use them. Any irregularities allow plaintiffs and their attorneys to raise doubts as to whether this was a good faith investigation or a cover-up.
  3. Keep things moving — Get to witnesses while their memories are fresh. Delays make it too easy for a plaintiff to argue that discovering the truth wasn’t a priority for the employer.
  4. Document every step — The most critical documentation will be written statements from key witnesses. Documentation minimizes the opportunity people have to change their stories. And save every scrap of documentation.  If you dispose of anything expect to be questioned about what you were trying to hide.
  5. Evaluate the evidence objectively — The person complaining doesn’t have to prove his or her case beyond a reasonable doubt. Even if it’s the proverbial “he said/she said,” you need to decide who is more credible.
  6. Take appropriate remedial action — If you conclude there was wrongdoing, take actions reasonably calculated to prevent it from recurring.
  7. Keep the complaining party informed — Let them know the status of the investigation, the conclusions, and the steps being taken. Then when it’s all over, follow up with the complaining party periodically to make sure that there have been no further issues.
  8. Don’t add a retaliation claim to your problems — Do nothing to the complaining party that could be viewed as punitive. This includes transfers, reductions in hours, or anything else that penalizes or isolates them.

A prompt, thorough investigation can go a long way towards protecting an employer from litigation. A shoddy investigation can have the opposite effect.

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.

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
Copyright: kaarsten / 123RF Stock Photo

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.

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
Copyright: ljupco / 123RF Stock Photo

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
Copyright: imagecatalogue / 123RF Stock Photo

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 …

Harassment has been in the news a lot lately. How a company responds to an employee complaint is critical. If your company receives a complaint, here are some things you should never say:

  1. I will keep what you tell me completely confidential. No you won’t. You’ll keep it as confidential as circumstances allow. You’ll only disclose information on a need-to-know basis. But you can’t conduct an effective investigation without telling the accused what the complainant said and vice versa.
  2. I’m really busy now. Can we talk about this in a couple days? A good plaintiff’s attorney will hang you with a comment like that. You might as well say, “Preventing harassment isn’t really a big priority for this organization.”
  3. Because of privacy concerns, I can’t tell you what steps we’re taking. You should inform the complaining witness of what steps you’re taking throughout the investigation. They have a right to know. Also, you don’t want them concluding that they need to go talk to a lawyer to get the company’s attention.

    Copyright:  / 123RF Stock Photo
    Copyright: / 123RF Stock Photo
  4. To protect you from retaliation, we’ll move you to this different department/shift/location. That’s not protecting someone from retaliation. That IS retaliation.
  5. It’s “he said/she said,” so we can’t do anything. Most harassment complaints involve one person’s word against another. That doesn’t absolve the company of its duty to weigh the facts and make a conclusion.
  6. I’ll do the investigation myself. How hard can it be? When you see a giant harassment verdict, it usually has more to do with what the employer did in response to the complaint than what the accused harasser did. If the complaining witness brings a claim, every step of the investigation will be scrutinized. That’s why a prompt, fair, thorough investigation is the best way for an employer to protect itself once issues arise.

When you read about sexual harassment claims, the focus is on what the alleged harasser is accused of doing. The sordid details are what attract readers. The Marchuk v. Faruqi & Faruqi case is one recent example.

But in the real world of harassment litigation, the focus is on what the employer did. That’s because the plaintiffs and their attorneys don’t just want a verdict against the usually shallow-pocket individual defendant. They want a verdict against the usually deep-pocket employer. To get that, they need to show that the employer didn’t take the issue seriously.

The time to start preparing to defend these claims is before they’re brought. And you can start by answering these questions:

  1. How current is the company’s policy against harassment? Does it recognize the breadth of activity that can constitute harassment? Does it list the various protected categories and provide multiple avenues for employees to raise concerns?
  2. Can employees find the policy easily? Better yet, have they signed a form acknowledging receipt of the policy (or the handbook containing it).
  3. Have managers received the bi-annual harassment training mandated by California law?
  4. Do managers behave appropriately? Legally, the actions of managers and supervisors are deemed actions of the company. If there were instances where managers didn’t behave appropriately, have the issues been addressed in a way that is reasonably calculated to prevent them from recurring?
  5. When managers observe inappropriate behavior at work, do they respond effectively? A manager turning a blind eye to bad behavior will be portrayed as the company condoning it.
  6. Has your company identified a qualified investigator to evaluate harassment complaints? You want someone who’s far enough from the situation to be impartial, who has experience investigating these types of issues, and who understands how to question witnesses.

How your company responds when it receives a harassment complaint remains critically important. But there are steps employers need to take before that point to show that they’re serious about providing a harassment-free workplace.

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

As I’ve written before, California has specific requirements for employers investigating complaints of harassment. Failure to follow these requirements can expose an employer to just as much liability as the harassment itself — especially if a plaintiff’s attorney can characterize the shortcomings as an intentional cover up.

My partner Frank Cook over at the New Jersey Human Resources blog recently posted bullet points of issues to cover in an investigation. It provides a useful overview and you can read it here.

Remember: Harassment litigation is less about what the alleged harasser did than about how the employer responds. The whopping plaintiffs’ verdicts come in cases where the response is delayed, incomplete, or appears biased.