Coronavirus Confidential

Yesterday, Charlie in Accounting had the sniffles.  He hasn’t come into work today.  Tomorrow, he calls you in HR and tells you that he tested positive for coronavirus.  Does this bit of information change what you’ve been doing?  I posted a poll on Twitter yesterday, and here’s the result:

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Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve learned a lot more about the coronavirus and how to prepare for a possible pandemic.  We know we should be washing our hands, not touching our faces, preparing for folks to work from home when they can, researching business interruption insurance to see if it will cover payroll if coronavirus requires us to shutdown, reevaluating if we can afford giving pay increases in light of financial outlooks, and communicating to employees how to prepare.  All of these are important steps to take.

It’s awesome to be prepared.  It is also important to look at our obligations as an employer.  As a worry-wart employment lawyer, one obligation leaps out when we start talking about coronavirus – the obligation to keep medical information confidential.  In a normal, non-pandemic situation, we would not be able to share that Charlie has cancer, arthritis, or any other medical condition.  A pandemic doesn’t change this.  If Charlie tests positive, we can’t share that with employees.  The fact that we know shouldn’t change what we’re doing.  Prepare as though it will hit your neighborhood so that when it does, you don’t violate the ADA.

Now, you might be thinking about moral obligations.  Shouldn’t we be able to tell Suzy because her elderly mother lives with her or Jamal because his kid gets sick a lot?  The answer is still no.  We should tell employees now that when coronavirus gets to our area, they will need to make decisions, like working from home or taking increased PTO, as they are necessary and that we’ll be doing everything we can to keep our workplace safe and healthy, like telling people not to come to work when they’re sick.  Yes, this is hard.

Review the EEOC’s pandemic guidance.  It’s from 2009 but recently re-upped given coronavirus.  Here are some key takeaways for you:

  • You can and SHOULD increase infection-control practices like handwashing and increased cleanings of offices and surfaces
  • You can’t take every employee’s temperature as they enter your offices unless the CDC tells you to
  • You can’t ask employees if they have a disease that makes them more susceptible to the virus
  • You can’t require employees to get a vaccine as religion and disability may prevent it for some employees
  • You can tell employees not to come to work when they’re sick and you can send them home

Instead of waiting for Charlie to get tested, let’s get prepared.  Here are some great resources that may be helpful for you:

  • Check out the University of Minnesota’s CIDRAP center for all the news and maps that you might need
  • Check out Dan Schwartz’s blog for updates on how to prepare
  • Joey Price has a webinar on Tuesday (3/10) for HR on how to prepare
  • HR Bartender posted some tips
  • Listen to Heather Kinzie and I talk about practical tips on how to handle coronavirus on Thursday (3/12) at 4 pm CDT/1 pm AK – no registration necessary!
  • Jeff Nowak has a webinar on Thursday (3/12) on preparedness, the ADA, and FMLA

Now, go get some more soap!

Sometimes, the Law Sucks

This evening, three individuals lost their jobs – through reassignment or termination – because they truthfully testified under oath in a congressional hearing regarding their knowledge of unlawful behavior.  While the law recognizes that termination because of testimony about illegal activity is unlawful, sometimes, the law doesn’t have a good remedy.

For example, a woman is sexually assaulted at work.  She reports the assault, and the bad actor is arrested and terminated.  If the bad actor was a co-worker with no supervisory responsibilities or prior history of assault, the woman doesn’t have a claim against the employer regardless of how egregious the assault was.  She could possibly have a workers’ compensation claim, but no claim for harassment due to the affirmative defense the employer would likely use to its advantage.

Another, a black man is forced to resign after his employer did nothing to stop near-constant harassing conduct.  He finds a better paying job right away, so he has no wage loss damages whatsoever.  He may have some emotional distress damages, but he never saw a therapist, has no medical records establishing severe emotional distress, and is sleeping well now.  When plaintiff lawyers meet with him and evaluate whether to take his case, they decide his damages are not sufficient to cover their costs given it’s highly unlikely that they will get through trial.  So, for business reason, they don’t take his case as many others like them.

Yet, one more.  Ninety women have come forward to tell their stories of Harvey Weinstein.  Yet, only a few have claims within the statute of limitations and have convinced prosecutors to try him for his sexual misconduct.  Others did not bring claims within the statute of limitations of the few civil claims they may claim.  For most women, there is no recourse.

So, yes.  Sometimes, the law doesn’t have an appropriate remedy.  Sometimes, it just plain sucks.  If you’d like it not to suck, vote, talk with your legislators, and remember to vote.

 

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

The NLRB’s Bad Decision

About a third of the work I do is workplace investigations – everything from culture reviews and employee misconduct to harassment.  I love them!  Recently, the National Labor Relations Board issued a new decision that greatly affects employer policies around investigations.  Essentially, the Board overturned a decision that allowed employees to talk about an ongoing investigation.  Now, employers can prohibit employees from talking about an investigation.  In fact, employees can now get fired for talking about it.

I’m not going to lie.  I really don’t like this decision.  I know, I know.  My perspective is the polar opposite of nearly every other investigator out there.  But hear me out.  I’ve got two reasons why this decision is bad for employers and employees.

First, #metoo took off when women talked with each other about their experiences.  When Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, and Ronan Farrow started meeting with women in Harvey Weinstein’s sphere, the more women they spoke to, the more harassment they found.  Once one person came forward on the record, it was easier for others to come forward and share how much a monster Harvey really was.  Now, there are 90 women who have come forward.  The same thing happens in companies that don’t end up in headlines.  When one person comes forward, others follow suit.  (Pun not intended.)

Harassment targets fear speaking out alone, and intentionally, harassers isolate and separate their targets so they feel all alone and that no one will believe them.  When targets know someone else has had a similar experience and they’re willing to report it too, they may even come forward together.  So, knowing about others and talking with them gets targets to report.  Something employers want, right?

Second, during an investigation, it is incredibly common to have reluctant witnesses – those who give you one-word answers and are all jittery when they sit across from you.  You listen to them and know they’re not sharing everything.  No matter how much prodding you do, they clam up.  If the investigation lasts long enough, the witness may come back, ask to speak with you again, and this time, they share more.  They may even share everything, including their experience being a target of harassment or provide the evidence you’ve been looking for.  When you ask why the change of heart in coming forward, the answer is often that they spoke to someone else and they felt they needed to “do the right thing.”  It makes it more difficult to evaluate them as a witness, but if they didn’t speak with anyone, we’d never get their information.

Now, other investigators have argued that they don’t want employees to chat with each other because they could “sync” stories or lie and that would interfere with their investigations.  I get that, but I’d rather have employees come tell me everything knowing that they’re not the only ones sticking their necks out.  And, if employees sync their stories, the investigator will hear the phrases suggesting they’ve colluded and are not genuine.  We’re trained in this.  We have experience in this.  We see it a lot.  We should be able to handle this separate from a policy prohibiting employees talking that puts their jobs at risk.

In their new decision, the Board argues that we can’t offer employees confidentiality in what they tell us if the employer doesn’t prohibit employees from talking about the investigation.  But no investigator says, “Well, Suzy told me XYZ” – we don’t share what people tell us.  In most cases, I don’t even share names with decision-makers.  If I told decision-makers exactly who said what, retaliation would be a real possibility.  So, I tell folks I interview that I don’t share names, and this comforts them, freeing them to open up.  If they talk with coworkers, they’ve picked people they’re comfortable with.  I share the important facts with decision-makers that they need to make any decision they need to.  So, the Board’s argument is hooey.

The National Labor Relations Act protects employees from discipline (including termination) when they get together to talk about the terms and conditions of employment.  This was the basis of the decision the Board overturned.  In some ways, the Board’s new decision feels like a response to the #metoo movement and an attempt to keep employees from talking about their experiences by allowing employers to have strict policies against employee talking about an investigation.  And, this is a shame.  Employers, trust your investigators to handle the information you do not need to adopt a policy in accordance with the Board’s new decision.  I recommend against it.

 

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

Saying Something Calculus

Full disclosure:  While visiting Consulate General Jerusalem in 2011, Vice President Biden heard it was my birthday and then kissed me on the cheek.  At the time, it was weird.  At times, it was a cool story to tell, but it remains weird. 

“Why didn’t she say something?”  “She should have said, ‘don’t touch me.’”  “We need to have a conversation.”  These are all common responses to women who have shared their uncomfortable interactions with a variety of powerful men – including Vice President Joe Biden.  Look closely at them.  Note how all of them place an obligation on the target of the questionable behavior and never on the person engaging in that behavior.

That is why these responses are flat-out wrong.

I get the argument for the responses.  How is someone supposed to know that their behavior is inappropriate if no one tells them?  Are we expecting everyone to be a walking encyclopedia (or Wikipedia for you youngsters) of cultural norms?  Most certainly not.  That said, you do need to use some emotional intelligence and plain-ole common sense and treat everyone with respect.

Emotional intelligence is “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.”  Being aware of other people would suggest that when you’re going in for the hug, you see the look of panic on the individual’s face.  Controlling your own emotions means you don’t kiss a colleague when you successfully complete a project because we don’t kiss in the workplace.  Handling interpersonal relationships judiciously is understanding that not everyone is a hugger.

Common sense – albeit rare contrary to the very term itself – is defined by being aware of social norms and how they change.  Yes, #metoo has changes our cultural norms.  But the movement hasn’t changed all social norms.  Some are still not understood by all.  The way to know what those social norms are is by being aware of what happens culturally.  Read or watch the news.  Read a book.  Watch the news.  Meet with friends and family.  This is how cultural norms are formed and learned.

The target of the inappropriate behavior is doing her or his own calculus.  If I say something here, how will the person respond?  Is it worth sticking my neck out to say “what you did made me feel uncomfortable”?  Doing this mental calculus quickly often results in saying nothing because of ease, expediency, and social respect.  Remember saying something always has a cost.  I knew that stopping the Vice President to tell him that he shouldn’t kiss people would be awkward and potentially off-putting for a visit already fraught with political tight-rope walking, so my calculus was to not say something.

Instead of putting the target in the crosshairs, we should focus on our own behavior.  For this, the most important thing is to lead with respect; respect of the personal autonomy and beliefs of the people you encounter.  In some cases, it would be inappropriate for a woman to touch a religious man, so when I reach out for a handshake, I might receive a polite bow in response.  I am certainly not offended by his decision to stay true to his faith.  And, because I am conforming to a social norm by reaching for a handshake, he is unlikely to be offended by my gesture as well.

One thing I’m leery of is prohibiting touching all together.  If we tell everyone to stop touching, aren’t we turning into robots?  I’ve got some do’s and don’ts on hugging and kissing:

  1. Do know the person you may want to touch before you do it. When you know someone – even if you’ve only interacted online – a hug may be a totally appropriate greeting.  But that’s only because you know them.  People give you clues on whether it is okay to touch.  A stranger?  No hug and definitely no kiss.  By the end of your meeting, it may be okay to hug goodbye.  The only time to kiss goodbye is at the end of a date (and maybe not on the first date).
  2. Do understand that people are all different and people may feel differently day-by-day. Some people will never hug.  Others may hug all the time.  Some will hug occasionally.  Just like we all process grief differently, we all process hugs in different ways on any given day.  A hugger might be having a bad day and the last thing he wants to do is hug.  Be open to this possibility and watch for the clues your emotional intelligence is picking up on.
  3. Don’t assume you can touch everyone because you’re powerful. It is simply not true that “when you’re a star, they let you do it.”  You may be more likely to get away with it because of the power dynamic at play, but no one forgets when someone famous inappropriately touches them.  In fact, if you are in a position of power, like a manager, leader, or “influencer,” it may be appropriate to dial down your normal behavior to hug knowing that others may be made even more uncomfortable because of your status.
  4. Don’t kiss at work.   Not even if your significant other comes to the office.  It’s weird.  (One exception, if you’re in a foreign country and it is socially acceptable to air kiss upon meeting.  Please note the air kiss – no lip contact required.  No lip contact.)

During a recent respectful workplace training, I was asked for the line.  “When does conduct cross the line?”  As I told the gentlemen, I wish I had the answer.  If there was a black/white line, it would be easier for all of us.  However, people have always made things gray and squishy.  It will take our smarts and our hearts to continue to learn about people and make appropriate decisions.

 

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Being Human

This week, I had the enormous privilege of attending #workhuman.  If you’ve never heard of Workhuman, where have you been?  Remove yourself from under that comfy rock, and let me share all my learnin’, y’all.  (Workhuman was in Nashville this year, and now, my drawl game is strong.)

Workhuman, formerly Globoforce, is a social recognition and continuous performance management platform that can integrate with lots of different HCMs to improve how your people see and interact with each other.   Workhuman does a ton of research on the impact of social recognition on inclusion, gender, race, wellness, and performance issues that will make your jaw drop.  They’ve come up with ways to inform, but not criticize, how we use language from a gendered and racial perspective when giving recognition or feedback based on the data they have collected from millions of interactions.  It is this research informs how they do business.  They’ve learned that being human makes workplaces better.

#workhuman is their signature conference, bringing together thousands of concerned humans for the sole purpose of trying to figure out how to make the workplace more human.  The conference is all about how do we see, treat, encourage, develop, recognize, thank, and love – yes, I said love, but not in the romantic sense – the people we work with so we can all do better.  This is more than just an HR conference, it is a business conference.

Here are a few of my takeaways:

We have to revel in being uncomfortable.  Whether it was Brene Brown, Kat Cole, Candi Castleberry Singleton, David Lapin, or any of the other speakers, this was a powerful take away.  As a society, we are at a tipping point.  Our workplaces are also at this tipping point.  We can’t simply put our heads down, our safety googles on, and focus on productivity goals if we’re going to be successful.  If we’re going to have people in our workplaces, we need to accept and welcome them as they are.  We’re going to have to talk to them about the heavy society concerns from gun safety, policy brutality, offensive tweets, gender and racial inequality, and the fear that prevents us from being our whole selves.  Allianz does this, Kat Cole does this, we should all do this.

Recognition makes a difference.  Data is the best.  Data that shows we can make a dent in the problems that plague our workplaces is even better.  The data Workhuman shared on how recognition can improve our connections at work, our engagement at work, and help plug the holes in our leaky buckets is so impressive.  I want to know more.  Luckily, there’s a resource page devoted to this!

Pobody’s nerfect, but we can all be resilient.  If we’re going to have difficult, uncomfortable conversations at work, we’re going to make mistakes.  We’re going to hear antiquated language that is now offensive.  We will have to tackle our fear with a battering ram.  We’re going to have to be brave and vulnerable.  We’re going to have to rely on our integrity, strength, and humanity to deal with the mistakes, use them as teachable moments, and move on.  I’m not saying that every mistake is just a mistake – some mistakes warrant termination – but as we encourage these conversations, forgiveness and resilience will be powerful to keep us moving forward.

Being human is hard.  As a crier, I was moved to tears a couple of times – not gonna lie.  It is hard to be vulnerable, willing to fail, learning from our mistakes, and sharing our failures so others can learn from them too.  No one promised this life, in general or in business, was going to be easy.  So, grab your friends, family, co-workers, and meet these obstacles head on.

I cannot oversell #workhuman.  Every attendee self-reflects, does some mental gymnastics, and learned from this conference.  Next year, Workhuman is in Denver.  I hope to be there.  I hope you all are too.

 

Photo by mauro mora on Unsplash

Two-Percent, Schmoopercent

Almost two weeks ago, the Washington Post published an article detailing the efforts of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to resolve workplace disputes over harassment and discrimination.  For past two weeks, the article has been nagging me.  Like really, really nagging me.

Out of all the data the Post reviewed, only two percent of the sex, disability, or retaliation cases had a cause finding, meaning the EEOC found cause to believe discrimination or harassment occurred.  In race and age cases, the EEOC found cause to believe discrimination or harassment occurred in only one percent of cases.  Does this mean that between two and one percent of the people who filed charges of discrimination actually have a case?  No.  It can’t mean that.  What do these numbers mean then?

The idea that “nothing will happen if I complain” is bolstered by these numbers.  If any reasonable person who believed they might have a legitimate case of discrimination or harassment read this article, will they still file a charge?  Still go through the stress and anguish of telling their story and waiting months and months to find out that the federal agency they turned to has nothing to help them?  Probably not.

The argument of “Discrimination has been solved and we don’t have to do anything about it anymore” is also bolstered by these numbers.  Yet, most of us know that discrimination and harassment are not solved.  Society still has problems with bias and microaggressions that seriously affect our ability to be a just and civil society and definitely, negatively impact our workplaces.  Yet, some jackass (yes, I meant to swear) is going to point at these numbers and say, “see, there’s nothing here.”

To give the EEOC some credit, they are heavily overworked, underpaid, and under significant pressure to turn cases over as fast as they can.  This means that the easiest thing to do is to try to get some kind of result (note the percentages in the teens for some sort of recovery) and then issue a no cause determination.  But the budgetary and staffing woes of EEOC are not the only reasons for these dismally low numbers.

Another reason for these dismally small numbers is the law.  The law has set an incredibly high standard for what actually is harassment and discrimination.  Employment lawyers joke that that every employer gets one boob grab or one n-word before the conduct is severe and pervasive enough to create real liability.  The joke is kinda-sorta funny because it’s kinda-sorta true.  An employer is not likely to be liable for discrimination, the microaggressions, the different treatment until it is really bad.

We have two choices.  One, we can change the law.  Some states are considering lowering the standard, so employees don’t have to meet such high bar to show discrimination or harassment.  (California passed this law, and Minnesota is considering it.)  By removing the analysis of severe and pervasive, employees may have an easier time proving discrimination or harassment pushing employers to take action sooner when confronted with inappropriate behavior.

Two, we can lower the bar ourselves.  We, as employers and HR pros, can set the bar at the level of behavior we are going to tolerate, meaning we can choose not to tolerate microaggressions.  We can choose not to tolerate a single boob grab or n-word.  We can choose not to tolerate the behavior that so many already believe is intolerable.  We don’t have to rush to terminate when communication problems are the culprit, but we can take action more often to make our folks comfortable to be themselves in our workplaces.

This is the thing about the law.  It is most often the floor.  We can do more.  We can say two-percent, shmoopercent.  We will look at every situation, every individual, and say, “You will be respected” and actually mean it by our policies, our trainings, and our actions.

 

Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash