It’s been five months since the #MeToo movement burst onto the scene. Since then, the headlines have been dominated with accusations of grossly inappropriate behavior by prominent politicians, entertainers, business people, and others. So it’s somewhat surprising that, according to acting EEOC Commissioner Victoria Lipnic (as reported in Law360 (subscription required)), the number of sexual harassment claims being filed with her agency hasn’t changed. Why is that?

One reason may be that employers are being more proactive. Those of us who do harassment prevention training are certainly doing more of it than in prior years. So perhaps (he said, trying to sound optimistic) employers are putting more emphasis on preventing harassment and those efforts are paying off.

Another explanation may be that employers are settling pre-litigation to avoid the devastating publicity that can accompany these claims, particularly with higher-profile defendants.

Also, many of the accusations that figure so prominently in the media involve conduct that occurred many years ago. Employees generally have no more than a year to bring these claims. So conduct occurring before then, no matter how offensive, will not be legally actionable.

Finally, it may be that the claims are working their way through the system. Before filing a lawsuit or a charge with a government agency, plaintiffs’ lawyers may be interviewing witnesses and lining up support for their clients’ claims. That process takes time.

Whatever the reason, employers shouldn’t let their guards down. They should continue to ensure that their harassment policies are legally compliant, that they appropriately investigate complaints of bad behavior, and that their managers are trained about their obligations in providing a harassment-free workplace. While there has not been a big upsurge in harassment claims yet, it only takes one to devastate your company.

When an employer gets sued for sexual harassment, the focus is not on what the alleged harasser did. It’s on what the employer did to provide its employees a harassment-free work environment. This includes both steps taken before anyone complains and steps taken in response to the complaint. So if your goal is to prevent your company getting sued for harassment, there are 12 steps you can (and should) take now. In fact, California law requires these things be present in all harassment policies.

  1. List all the categories currently protected under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, i.e., race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, and military or veteran status.
  2. State that the policy prohibits harassment by co-workers, supervisors, managers, and third parties with whom the employee comes into contact. (That’s basically everyone, isn’t it?)
  3. Provide confidentiality, to the extent possible, for complaints.
  4. Promise timeliness. This is a point of emphasis. The regulations require “a timely response,” “timely investigations,” and “timely closures.”
  5. State that investigations will be impartial and conducted by qualified personnel.
  6. State that investigations will be documented and tracked for reasonable progress.
  7. Provide “appropriate options for remedial actions and resolutions.”
  8. Designate personnel to receive complaints, while stating that employees are not required to complain to their immediate supervisors.
  9. Instruct supervisors whom to direct complaints to. Don’t let them investigate on their own, unless they’re trained to do so.
  10. Indicate that the employer will conduct a fair, timely (there’s that word again!), and thorough investigation that provides all parties with appropriate due process and reaches a reasonable conclusion based on the evidence.
  11. Indicate that, if misconduct is found, the employer will take appropriate remedial measures.
  12. Prohibit retaliation.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that harassment claims have been in the news a lot lately. The first line of defense is having a compliant policy in place. Not allowing your employees to ever interact with customers, supervisors, vendors, or each other may also be effective, but that doesn’t seem to work for many businesses.

 

The #MeToo movement has understandably made employers more concerned about sexual relations between coworkers. An office romance may seem consensual, but is it really? This is especially problematic when there’s a power differential – such as a supervisor-subordinate relationship.

So what can employers do to prevent coworker relations that they fear may end in a sexual harassment claim? Certainly, employers can establish rules and internal policies discouraging coworker relations. But, as recently affirmed by the Ninth Circuit in Perez v. City of Roseville, there are constitutional limits on what public employers, like State and municipal governments, can do if they discover a consensual office romance.

Coworkers sitting across from each other with heart, symbolizing office romanceIn Perez, the City of Roseville, California investigated police officers Janelle Perez and Shad Begley after Begley’s wife reported that Begley and Perez engaged in sexual conduct while on duty. The investigation revealed that the officers were involved in an extramarital affair, but the City could not prove that they engaged in sexual conduct while on duty. Begley and Perez were written up for violating department policies. A short time later, Perez was fired, purportedly for performance reasons unrelated to the affair. Perez sued, alleging that “her termination violated her constitutional right to privacy and intimate association because it was impermissibly based in part on disapproval of her private, off-duty sexual conduct.” The lower court granted summary judgment for the defendants and Perez appealed.

The Ninth Circuit reversed in part, finding triable issues of fact as to whether Perez was fired for engaging in constitutionally-protected private sexual conduct. The court said: “[T]he constitutional guarantees of privacy and free association prohibit the State from taking adverse employment action on the basis of private sexual conduct unless it demonstrates that such conduct negatively affects on-the-job performance or violates a constitutionally permissible, narrowly tailored regulation.”

In a nutshell, Perez establishes that, at least within the Ninth Circuit (including California), a public employer cannot take adverse action on the basis of an employee’s private, off-duty sexual activity, unless the employer demonstrates that the conduct caused the employee’s job performance to suffer. This holding arguably extends to employees in the private sector too, who are subject to the same constitutional right to privacy and intimate association.

Takeaway: The #MeToo movement has led many employers to believe that all office romances are off-limits and constitute a fireable offense. Not so. At least within the Ninth Circuit, public employers cannot fire employees for private, off-duty sexual conduct that does not adversely impact job performance. Of course, employers can and must address non-consensual conduct and conduct that creates a sexually hostile work environment. But that does not give employers the right to intrude into relationships outside of work that do not directly impact the workplace.

If you have a questions about sexual harassment, office romance, or employee privacy rights, our employment attorneys are here to help.

More than ever before, the topic of sexual harassment is dominating the news (and this blog).  It’s time to make sure that your company’s sexual harassment prevention training is up to the task.

Fox Rothschild’s skilled team of attorney trainers will tailor a program to meet your company’s needs.  Take a break from the online routine, and make sure that your next sexual harassment prevention training session is a “wow,” not just a check-the-box compliance item.

38610418 – wow! comic speech bubble, cartoon

To learn more, check out this alert featuring our Los Angeles team.

Koko the Gorilla, who turned 46 last month, has quite a following. Much of that has to do with the fact that she purportedly has a vocabulary of over 1000 words that she communicates through sign language. If this were a blog about linguistics, primate behavior, or how the Planet of the Apes movies are a cautionary tale about future inter-species conflict, we’d delve into that further. But it’s not. So let’s talk about another thing Koko is famous for.

Koko is the only western lowland gorilla to be accused of sexual harassment. In 2005, two women working for the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, CA (southwest of Redwood City) sued claiming that the president of the Foundation pressured them to expose their breasts to Koko. According to the lawsuit, which settled for undisclosed terms:

“On at least two incidents in mid-to-late June 2004, Patterson intensely pressured Keller to expose herself to Koko while they were working outside where other employees could potentially view Keller’s naked body. … On one such occasion, Patterson said, ‘Koko, you see my nipples all the time. You are probably bored with my nipples. You need to see new nipples. I will turn my back so Kendra can show you her nipples.'”

Both women further allege that they declined to “indulge Koko’s nipple fetish.” If this were a blog about gorilla’s sexual predilections, we’d delve into that deeper. But it most assuredly, is not. It’s about California Employment Law. We make that pretty clear at the top of the page. So what does any of this have to do with California employment law?

For employers, preventing harassment requires more than just controlling their employees. Companies can also be liable for harassment of their employees by third parties if the company fails to take prompt and effective measures to address the harassment. Employers can’t necessarily control the behavior of customers, clients, vendors, contractors, and everyone else their employees interact with in their work. But if you’re an employer, you should take these steps:

  1. California regulations require that a company’s sexual harassment policy prohibit harassment by co-workers, supervisors, managers, and third parties with whom the employee comes into contact. So ensure that your harassment policy contains that language.
  2. Ensure that your harassment policy directs employees whom to complain to if they are subjected to harassing behavior by third parties.
  3. Train your supervisors to notify human resources immediately if these issues come to their attention.
  4. If issues of third-party harassment arise, make sure that the company conducts a prompt and thorough investigation.
  5. If the facts developed in the investigation warrant, take prompt remedial action that is reasonable to prevent the situation from recurring.
12506543 – western lowland gorilla portrait (gorilla gorilla gorilla) captive. national zoo. washington dc, usa.

This last step can be complicated. You can’t necessarily counsel or discipline third parties the way you can with employees. In extreme cases, companies have even had to fire clients who refuse to treat the companies’ workers appropriately. Fortunately, that’s just in extreme cases — where the clients insist on behaving like gorillas.

 

 

A year ago, I wrote about a report from an EEOC Task Force on risk factors for workplace harassment. Well the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace continues studying away and has issued some new materials. They consist of:

Takeaway No. 1: It’s a point I’ve been making for years and will keep making. If your company gets sued for harassment, the case will be less about what the harasser did than about what the company did to prevent and respond to the situation. As the law gets more exacting on what it expects from employers, it’s critical to have qualified legal counsel guide you through this process.

Takeaway No. 2: There is such a thing as researchers who evaluate organizations’ holistic workplace harassment prevention efforts!

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 …