Spring is here! And for those of us in sunny Southern California that means it is music festival season. First up is Coachella and then Stagecoach, with more to follow until October. Days and nights filled with music, food, beer, cocktails, and of course, legal recreational marijuana.

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I recently had a terrific question from an employer who is sending a group of employees to staff a food booth at Coachella, and is providing group accommodations for them all. Can we implement some sort of wavier they asked? Great question, right?

While an employer cannot ask an employee to waive all rights arising from offsite work, an employer certainly can (and should) clarify expectations. Some suggested topics for offsite expectations include:

  • Clarification that all company policies apply to offsite work and time spent in provided accommodations.
  • That means no alcohol or drugs while on duty or while in provided accommodations.
  • Violations of those policies (including harassment policy), will lead to discipline up to and including termination.
  • Managers are responsible for setting the example.
  • What they do off duty still applies (i.e. manager can still harass when not working).
  • Include a number to call or steps to take if someone feels uncomfortable in shared accommodations or witnesses a policy violation.
  • Set up clear protocols for how non-exempt employees should log time worked, including meal and rest breaks and travel time.

Having all employees sign off on expectations before going offsite, and taking steps to address any problems quickly and effectively, should help to limit bad behavior, and hopefully liability, even at Coachella.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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!

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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:

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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.

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.

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Copyright: arloo / 123RF Stock Photo

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.