Category Archives: Harrassment

The #MeToo Effect on Your Company

Contributed by Beverly Alfon and Allison Sues, November 13, 2018

#MeToo

#MeToo on white paper

As we draw closer to the end of 2018, let’s reflect a bit and look forward with purpose.  The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently released preliminary FY 2018 sexual harassment data that is consistent with the #MeToo movement:

  • Sexual harassment charges increased by more than 12 percent – the first increase in at least eight years;
  • EEOC focused on harassment claims and filed 66 harassment lawsuits; and
  • EEOC recovered nearly $70 million for sex harassment victims (up from $47.5 million in 2017).

These statistics do not include the many charges that individuals have filed with state agencies, internal complaints made with employers, lawsuits filed by employees in state or federal courts, or settlements of those claims.

These notable statistics come just one year after the EEOC released an online resource, Promising Practices for Preventing Harassment, in which the agency focused on a checklist of four core elements to “enhance employers’ compliance efforts” when it comes to addressing workplace harassment.

  • Leadership and Accountability – Consistent and demonstrated commitment of senior leaders to maintain a culture in which harassment is not tolerated. Such commitment should be demonstrated, by allocating workplace time to training on harassment, consistently disciplining any employees who harass others, and seeking out feedback from employees on the effectiveness of the employer’s anti-harassment measures.
  • Comprehensive and Effective Harassment Policy – Policy should be clear and communicated to all employees, at every level of the organization. The policy should explicitly apply to applicants and every type of employee, and must make clear that the employer will not tolerate harassment of employees by anyone, including customers, clients, or any other individuals at the worksite. The policy should be easily understandable and periodically reviewed and updated.
  • Effective and Accessible Harassment Complaint Systems – The system should welcome questions, concerns and complaints. It should encourage employees to report potential problems, and provide for prompt, thorough and neutral investigations. It should be flexible enough to allow employees to choose from multiple channels to make their complaint.
  • Effective Harassment Training – Employees need to be aware of leadership values, the policy and complaint systems.  Regular, interactive, and comprehensive training of all employees must be understandable and tailored to the specific workforce.

These guidelines are significant because they are issued by the federal agency that is charged with enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws – and courts are starting to take notice.  Under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, even if an employee does not suffer an adverse employment action (e.g., demotion, termination, etc.), an employer can be held liable for harassment by a supervisor.  However, the employer may avoid liability if it can prove that (a) the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent/correct any harassment; and (b) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise.  As a result, most employers have an anti-harassment policy in their handbooks for the purpose of defending against claims.  Recently, however, a federal appellate court acknowledged the existence of an employer’s anti-harassment policy, but specifically asked, “Was the policy in place effective?” In Minarsky v. Susquehanna County, No. 17-2646 (3d Cir. 2018), the plaintiff alleged that she had been harassed by her supervisor for a number of years. The district court granted summary judgment to the employer under the Faragher/Ellerth standard because she never complained to her employer about the harassment. However, the Third Circuit appellate court reversed and remanded the case based on evidence that although the supervisor was reprimanded twice and ultimately fired, the supervisor’s conduct toward the plaintiff was not isolated. Other employees previously complained about similar behavior by the supervisor, and the employer took no action in response. The court held that whether the employer took reasonable care to detect and eliminate the harassment and whether Minarsky acted reasonably in not availing herself of the employer’s anti-harassment safeguards should be decided by a jury. The mere existence of an anti-harassment policy and the plaintiff’s failure to make a complaint pursuant to that policy was not sufficient for the appellate court to uphold summary judgment for the employer.

On the legislative front, California, New York (both city and state), and Delaware, have passed laws that now require employers to train all employees on harassment prevention. New York City requires bystander intervention training. California has specific time and content requirements for its training. Notably, these all seem to be in line with what the EEOC’s Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace called for in its 2016 report and again in its 2017 compliance guide.  In this growing number of states and cities, employers are no longer allowed to shirk off training for fear of “stirring the pot,” or out of a reluctance to commit resources to anti-harassment efforts.

All of this points to is a rising legal standard for what will suffice to establish an affirmative defense for employers.  A dormant anti-harassment policy in the employee handbook will no longer cut it.

BOTTOM LINE:  In this period of heightened awareness, control what you can by fully implementing the terms of your anti-harassment policies so that your company is in its best defensible position when these harassment claims arise. While we understand that not all employers have the resources to devote to the loftier goals encouraged by the EEOC, there are three concrete steps that you can take to begin mitigating your risks:

  1. Confirm the last time that your company educated all employees on your anti-harassment policy and complaint procedures – and consider another round of training for all levels of employees;
  1. Seek a legal audit of your company’s complaint process;  and,
  1. Seek a legal audit of your company’s investigation procedures (i.e., whether best practices for investigation, documentation and follow-up are being utilized).

 

#MeToo Prompts Stiffer Sexual Harassment Laws

Contributed by Suzanne S. Newcomb, July 6, 2018

In January we reported on a change in federal tax law aimed at discouraging confidentiality in sexual harassment and abuse settlements. Since then Tennessee, Washington, New York, and New York City have enacted sexual harassment prevention measures including discouraging confidential settlements.

#MeToo

#MeToo on sketchbook 

In Tennessee and Washington it is now unlawful to condition employment on an agreement not to disclose workplace sexual harassment although confidential settlements are still permitted in both states. The Washington state law further clarifies that non-disclosure policies and agreements do not prevent discovery or witness testimony in administrative or civil judicial actions and tasks the state’s Human Rights Commission with developing model policies and best practices to prevent sexual harassment.

New York recently passed an aggressive state-wide anti-harassment law which mandates annual training, prohibits mandatory arbitration of sex harassment claims, and severely limits an employer’s ability to keep the underlying facts of such claims confidential as follows:

  • Effective Immediately Employers must protect non-employees in their workplace from sexual harassment and are liable to non-employees (i.e. contractors, subcontractors, vendors, consultants or others providing services) if the employer’s agents knew or should have known of the harassment and “failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action.”
  • Effective 7/11/2018
    • It becomes unlawful to require employees to arbitrate sexual harassment claims (this provision will likely be challenged as violating the Federal Arbitration Act).
    • It becomes unlawful to require confidentiality as to the facts and circumstances underlying a claim of sexual harassment unless confidentiality is the complainant’s preference. If the complainant indicates he or she prefers confidentiality, the employer must wait 21 days while the complainant considers the proposed confidentiality provision and, if the complainant chooses to accept the provision, the complainant must be allowed seven days to revoke the agreement. Note, unlike the ADEA, the NY State law does not appear to allow the complainant to waive any part of the 21 day consideration period.
  • By 10/9/2018 employers in the state must (1) adopt a written sexual harassment policy and (2) provide “interactive” sexual harassment training to all employees annually. Both the policy and the training must meet the strict standards set forth in the statute.

New York City enacted its own ordinance which extends the time period for filing sexual harassment complaints to 3 years; expands the prohibition of sexual harassment to all employment and independent contractor relationships (unless the contractor is itself an employer) regardless of number of employees; effective 9/6/2018 will require employers to display a new mandatory poster and provide an information sheet to all employees upon hire; and effective 4/1/2019 will require employers to provide annual “interactive” sexual harassment training which meets the minimum standards outlined in the ordinance to all employees (including managers, supervisors and interns).

Employers with operations in New York must act now to ensure compliance. Others should remain alert as many other jurisdictions are considering similar measures.

 

I Heart You! Office Romance and Risk Management

Contributed by Beverly Alfon, February 13, 2018

As most turn their thoughts to love and romance this Valentine’s Day, we remind you of the potential liability that Cupid’s arrow may unleash. In this post-Weinstein and #MeToo period, the thought of office romance may catapult an employer into sheer panic. Although a recent CareerBuilder survey indicates that office romance is at a 10-year low, the stats are still telling: 36% of workers admitted to having dated a colleague in the past year. Of workers who had an office romance, 30% dated someone in a higher position. Yikes. A soured relationship at work can result in a broken heart for the employer – usually in the form of a sexual harassment claim. How can an employer address this?

A Love Contract?

heart

Red outline of heart on white background

These things exist. They are written relationship agreements that employers seek from employees to confirm the existence of a consensual relationship. The employer’s goal is to mitigate risk by documenting the employer’s expectation that they comply with all existing policies, including anti-harassment policies. They can also be used to set ground rules for other conduct, including public displays of affection (PDA), favoritism – and retribution (in case the relationship turns sour).  However, while these contracts can be a good “band-aid” for addressing the relationship, if a company does not have an anti-harassment program or policy regarding office relationships; it is not the best option.

A love contract alone will not likely defeat an employee’s claim of harassment. Most sexual harassment plaintiffs can claim that they were coerced into signing one because their employer presented the agreement in the context of their at-will employment. Practically, a love contract is also difficult because it requires employees to admit to the existence of a relationship in the first place. In the same CareerBuilder survey, 41% of the workers kept their romance a secret – and almost 25 of survey respondents admitted to an affair with a colleague where one person involved was married at the time.

Snap out of it!

You can more effectively mitigate legal risk by focusing on your anti-harassment program. If you don’t have a written policy in place, invest the time and dollars to get one. Having a policy on the books is not enough. It should be supplemented with annual interactive training courses (a legal requirement for California employers) – ones tailored for non-supervisory and supervisory employees. The goal is to document that employees have been trained on the internal complaint procedures. Equally important is training your supervisors on how to avoid harassment claims and how to properly handle claims if the supervisor receives knowledge of a claim. A solid anti-harassment/discrimination program demonstrates employer good-faith and can form a defense against such claims.

A general workplace romance or “fraternization” policy can address concerns over PDA and favoritism. Don’t play footsie over this. Specifically address office relationships to make it clear that you expect professional and respectful behavior of all employees, regardless of any personal relationship between them. You can prohibit PDA in the office or on company time. And yes, you can forbid romantic relationships between supervisors and subordinates. According to a 2013 survey conducted by SHRM, of businesses that had a romance policy, 99% banned supervisor-subordinate relationships. And, it’s no wonder. In addition to harassment claims, soured relationships can result in claims of assault and battery, false imprisonment and defamation against the alleged harasser. Inevitably, the employer will be rolled into any related litigation.

Bottom Line: Love contracts are uncomfortable and not very effective.  It is more effective to prohibit the risky conduct in the first place. Implementing a strong anti-harassment program and addressing employee relationships in a policy will go further in mitigating risks.

 

EEOC Actively Enforces Equal Pay Violations

Contributed by Jonathon Hoag, November 28, 2017

The EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP) for Fiscal Years 2017-2021 identified “Equal Pay” as a priority area that demands focused attention. The EEOC’s recent press releases show it is actively fulfilling this strategic mission.

gender equality

Gender equality scale

In the third scenario, the EEOC obtained a judgment against a pizza restaurant for violating the Equal Pay Act. Two high school friends-one male and one female-applied to be “pizza artists” and both were hired. However, the female applicant received $0.25 less an hour in starting pay. When she realized this discrepancy, she contacted the restaurant to complain. In response, the restaurant withdrew the offers of employment to both individuals. The EEOC’s attorney referenced the vast amount of recent news related to sexual harassment and stated unequal pay is simply another form of sex discrimination in the workplace. Further, the EEOC stressed that it will continue to thoroughly investigate and enforce equal pay requirements.

Bottom Line

The overwhelming media coverage of sexual harassment and unequal treatment in the workplace reinforces that employers must make equal treatment a top priority. Periodic review of policies and practices, with attention to pay policies, remains critical to limit employer exposure to lawsuits alleging unequal pay or treatment.

Oh No, Not You (Again): Serious Enforcement of Harassment Policies Is Absolutely Necessary

Contributed by Steven Jados, November 22, 2017

During the past several weeks, it seems that every day has featured new allegations of sexual harassment involving celebrities, politicians, and others in positions of power.

These allegations invite a question to employers: Do you want to be in the news for all the wrong reasons? No? Good, because this moment in time should impress upon all businesses the importance of vigilant enforcement of anti-harassment policies.

HandbookThe first step in enforcement is ensuring that anti-harassment policies are properly communicated to all employees—from entry-level to C-Suite.  All employees should be told, in no uncertain terms, on day one of their employment and regularly thereafter, that they have the right not to be sexually harassed at work. The company’s management—all the way to the top of the organization—must also be put on notice that employees have the right not to be sexually harassed at work, and that credible allegations of harassment will carry real consequences for those who engage in such unacceptable behavior.

Employees must also be trained on how to make internal complaints of harassment within the company.  On that point, employees should know that they can contact human resources, or any appropriate member of management with whom the employee is comfortable with, to disclose improper conduct without fear of retaliation.

Training must also extend to human resources and all members of management, so that they know to recognize harassment complaints for what they are—and so the company’s investigation and enforcement procedures can promptly be put into action. Management must take all complaints or possible situations of harassment seriously, and investigate them to their reasonable conclusion.  There can be no off-the-record complaints; companies cannot look the other way because an accused manager was “just kidding” or, even worse, because an individual “gets to do whatever he or she wants.”  In the end, appropriate disciplinary action and re-training must follow when the company’s investigation determines that harassment occurred.

While proper investigation procedures can shield companies from liability in certain circumstances, failures in implementation, training, investigation, and enforcement of anti-harassment policies are more likely to result in legal liability, negative publicity and adverse financial implications.

Attention employers: Do you have questions on how to implement or communicate anti-harassment policies? Are you uncertain how you should respond to employee complaints? Do you need help in training your employees and management on company anti-harassment policies and procedures? Or, like many employers, are you simply hesitant to investigate harassment allegations against high-level managers?

Ultimately, if you are asking these questions, the best approach is to seek the advice of experienced employment counsel so that potential areas of liability can be contained and minimized, or better yet, eliminated as soon as possible.

Seventh Circuit Opinion Focuses on Employee Handbook in Determining Whether Employer had Constructive Notice of Non-Supervisory Sexual Harassment

Contributed by Allison P. Sues, August 22, 2017

Employee handbookOn August 2, 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued a decision in Nischan v. Stratosphere Quality, LLC providing clarity on what constitutes an employer’s “constructive notice” of harassment.

Michele Nischan worked as a project supervisor at Stratosphere Quality, LLC, a company that provides third-party inspection and quality-control services to car manufacturers. Nischan alleged that an employee of one of the client manufacturers “relentlessly” sexually harassed her by routinely rubbing himself against her and making offensive comments, amid other inappropriate actions.

Because the alleged harasser did not have supervisory authority over Nischan, Stratosphere could only be held liable for the alleged sexual harassment if it was negligent in discovering or remedying it. Normally, to prevail on this type of claim, the employee presents evidence that she made a concerted effort to report the harassment. Here however, it was undisputed that Nischan did not report the harassment during the relevant time period.

Nevertheless, an employer may be held liable even when an employee fails to report sexual harassment if the employer knew or should have known of the harassing conduct but failed to act. The Federal Appellate Court explained that constructive notice will generally attach when someone who has a duty to pass the information up the chain of command learns of the harassment.

Nischan claimed a fellow project supervisor (her peer) and an operations manager were both present when one of the incidents of harassment occurred. However she testified she was unsure whether the operations manager witnessed the harassment and he denied witnessing any conduct that constituted sexual harassment.  The lower court concluded there was no basis to impute liability to the employer because only her peer, not the higher level employee, knew of the harassment.

The Seventh Circuit disagreed.  Even though the project supervisor who witnessed the harassment held the same low level project supervisor position as Nischan and was not Nischan’s supervisor, the employer’s handbook required that any employee with any supervisory responsibility report observed instances of harassment up the chain of command or to human resources. The Seventh Circuit noted that the employer “is accountable to the standard of care it created for itself” and that because the employer’s own rules “required [the project supervisor] to report the sexual harassment that she observed, Stratosphere had constructive notice of the harassment.”

Bottom Line: This case serves as a reminder that each company’s unique employee policy may guide the court in determining an employer’s legal obligations. Employers should review their harassment and reporting policies and ensure that all employees that fall under its scope receive proper training on identifying harassing behavior—even if it is directed at another—and promptly reporting it.

Responding to Violence in the Workplace – A “Catch 22” for Employers

Contributed by Michael Wong, August 10, 2017

Workplace investigation

The recent instances of violence in the workplace remind us of the complex task facing employers. Employers must maintain a safe work environment for employees while operating within the parameters of the many federal and state laws that may protect certain employee conduct. More importantly, because an employer has no objective “litmus test” for predicting which employee may become violent under particular triggering circumstances, there is no foolproof way to effectively eliminate the hazard.

Employers today can find themselves in a seemingly untenable dilemma when they have violence threaten to invade their workplace, as disciplining or terminating the problem employee can result in a legal claim as well.

In Mayo v. PCC Structurals, Inc., 795 F.3d 941, 942 (9th Cir. 2015), the employer, PCC, terminated the plaintiff, Thomas Mayo, after he made threatening comments to three co-workers that he was going to bring a gun to work and start “shooting people.” After the threats were reported, the employer took the proper precautions by immediately suspending the plaintiff, barring him from company property, and notifying the police. The police took him to the hospital for medical treatment on the basis that he was an imminent threat to himself and others.

After taking three months of leave under the FMLA and Oregon’s equivalent state law, a treating psychologist cleared Mayo to return to work, but recommended a new supervisor assignment. Instead, the employer terminated Mayo. Plaintiff then sued PCC alleging he was terminated because of his disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state law.

In Mayo v. PCC, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that an employee who made serious and credible threats of violence against coworkers is not a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA or Oregon’s disability discriminatory law. In granting summary judgment to the employer, the Court held that an essential function of almost every job is the ability to appropriately handle stress and interact with others, and that an individual is not qualified and cannot perform the essential functions of the job if he or she threatens to kill co-workers – regardless of whether such threats stem from a mental condition or disability.

What should employers do?

Against this potential liability minefield, an employer should develop an effective written workplace violence preventative policy. For those who already have policies in place, it would be a good idea to review your policies and practices with your legal counsel to make sure that these issues and any potential concerns are properly addressed.

Ask yourself the following questions to see if your policy needs to be modified in light of the recent lawsuits:

  1. Do your policies advise employees that they will be subject to discipline (up to and including termination) if they “fail to foster collegiality, harmony, positive attitude, and good relations in the workplace?”
  2. Do you have a statement that there is “zero tolerance” regarding threats or acts of violence?
  3. Do your managers/supervisors know what steps should be taken if there is a threat, complaint of bullying or violence?
  4. Have your managers, supervisors and employees been trained on identifying signs and symptoms of behavior which may predict potential violence (erratic behavior; comments regarding violence, homicide or suicide; provocative communications; disobedience of policies and procedures; presence of alcohol, drugs or weapons on the worksite; evidence of violent tendencies or abuse of alcohol or drug use)?
  5. Have your managers and supervisors been trained and regularly reminded about the importance of good documentation and dangers of bad documentation?