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

Pens & Company Ink

Recently, I gave a presentation on sexual harassment to a group of compliance professionals from some of the largest organizations in the Midwest.  At one point, an audience member called me a Sexual McCarthyist because I said CEOs shouldn’t have relationships – even consensual ones – with anyone in the company.  Given the news out of Chicago on Sunday, let’s go over why.

When a CEO engages in sexual harassment, the organization is vicariously liable for the conduct  Citing U.S. Supreme Court case Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 118 S. Ct. 2275, 2284 (1998), here’s what the EEOC’s Guidance says:

An employer is liable for unlawful harassment whenever the harasser is of a sufficiently high rank to fall “within that class . . . who may be treated as the organization’s proxy.”

The Guidance goes further and lists individuals who could be considered an organization’s proxy, including president, owner, partner, and corporate officer – like a CEO.  Vicarious liability means the organization has no defense to a harassment claim and is automatically liable if the conduct was indeed harassment.

So, was the conduct harassment?  Well, let me take all of your hopeless romantic hearts and crush them.  Relationships fail at a remarkable rate.  Think of all the people you have to date before you find “the one” and then “the one” has a better-than-fair chance of ending in divorce.

Now, imagine you’re a CEO.  You have a significant amount of authority over everyone in your organization.  You start flirting with an employee.  The employee may feel that they don’t have the option to say no to a couple of dates.  Things start to heat up, but something is not right.  The employee feels they can’t break up for fear of losing their job or ending their career (like blacklisting, etc.).  So, even though they may have liked the attention at the start, they can’t stop when it turns ugly.  Now, the relationship is no longer consensual.  This is harassment.

Or, what if the break-up is consensual but now the CEO has to rate the employee’s performance?  The employee is afraid that the CEO will be vindictive or will treat them unfairly because of the break-up.  This could be retaliation.

The best thing an organization can do is prohibit CEOs (and other C-suite individuals) from having relationships at work.  Period.  Institute a policy.  Talk with the board and leadership.  Explain you will enforce this.  Then, if it happens, take action.  This was what happened at McDonald’s.  This is what happened at Intel.

As my grandfather said (to his 14-year-old granddaughter (see, I was made for this work)), “Don’t get your money where you get your honey,” and “Don’t dip your pen in the company ink.”  If you’re a CEO out there, take these idioms to heart.  Not following them could end your career.

 

 

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The Law is the Basement

My house was built in the late 1890s.  It still has a dark closet that once functioned as a root cellar.  It’s now full of odd, rarely used cooking equipment, Christmas ornaments, and creepy cobwebs.  We now call it the punishment room as a threat designed to spur good behavior in my guys.  No one wants to be in there, but technically, it is a functional closet.

The law is often like that room.  It tells us the minimum of what is expected of us – what is the basement of how we can treat each other.  It’s functional but undesirable.  Just like my guys, no one wants to be in the basement.

But sometimes, the law isn’t even the basement.  It’s lower.  Much lower.  Never has that been clearer than today.  Today, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments in three cases involving whether “because of sex” protects individuals based on their LGBTQ status.  If the Court finds Title VII doesn’t protect the LGBTQ community, employers in 28 states will be able to fire someone because of who they are and who they love.  What’s really scary is that here is a real possibility the Supreme Court will find that the LGBTQ community is not protected.

What will this mean for employers?  I hope nothing.  I hope employers understand how stupid (yes, I wrote “stupid”) it is to discriminate on this basis.  Not only is it unlawful in many states – including Minnesota – it is bad for business.  At least one prominent study showed how LGBTQ-supportive policies were great for employees and business alike.  Being inclusive is the right thing to do.  Period.

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed the Equality Act that would protect the LGBTQ community regardless of how the Supreme Court finds.  But, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to allow a vote on the bill.  It’s likely the bill would pass if it reached the Senate floor.  In the meantime, the message to employers is that Congress doesn’t care if you discriminate.

But you don’t have to.  Employers don’t have to do the minimum.  You can keep employees out of the basement.  We should treat each other fairly and kindly regardless of LGBTQ status.  Here’s hoping the Supreme Court does the right thing, and the Senate does too.

In the meantime, no one can define your worth.  You’re all worthy.  Sending love and hope to everyone today.

 

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Why Talking Remedies Is A Bad Idea

I get to do a TON of respectful workplace trainings, otherwise known as harassment training.  It is one of my favorite things to do.  However, a new requirement for harassment training irks me to no end.

It’s the requirement under California, Illinois, New York, and potentially more state laws that requires that we talk about the remedies available to harassment victims.  I don’t hate the remedies – victims of harassment are entitled to all the remedies out there and then some.  I just don’t like talking about them in training.

Why you ask?  Victims of harassment are already plagued with a seemingly endless list of reasons NOT to report harassment, including retaliation, exposing an embarrassing incident(s), fear of being judged about the clothes they wear, fear of not being able to pay their mortgage, rent, car payment, student loan, child care bills, etc.  Telling them about the remedies available to them, all of which could bankrupt the very organization they’re working for, adds an additional burden to a victim.  Victims of harassment don’t always want to bring down their employer – they want to bring down the harasser or at the very least, make the conduct stop.  They don’t want their friends to lose their jobs too.  Victims went to work for their employer because they believed in the mission, need the work, and want to work there.  Talking about the hundreds of thousands of dollars at play in a harassment lawsuit doesn’t provide comfort, it adds to the load.

In training, I’m doing my darndest to encourage targets of harassment to tell HR or any manager about what is happening.  Trying to reduce the burdens of reporting, encouraging co-workers to help, promising retaliation will not happen, and that HR is a safe place for them to go.  Taking a hard left to “your report could cost this organization tons of money” is halting transition without out much benefit.

The required remedies discussion was probably designed to scare harassers.  It should!  But by and large, employers are on the hook for the money, not the individual harasser.  The harasser is rarely held to account.  They may lose their jobs, but they don’t owe restitution to the victim or even the employer.  It is the organization and its employees who suffer most through the time and resources taken up by a lawsuit.  Yes, in many cases, the organization needed to do better to protect employees, but spelling out its possible demise is not going to convince a victim to raise their voice.

Employers need to do better without a doubt.  And, a good training is a great step.  Scaring victims even more is not the answer.  Dear Legislators, please understand this and let me do my job.  I really like it, and I’m pretty good at it.

End rant.  Thank you.

 

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

The Billy Graham Rule Discriminates

Last week, a Mississippi gubernatorial candidate refused to allow a female journalist to follow him on his campaign because he follows the Billy Graham rule.  The rule is that married men should not ever be alone with a woman to “avoid any situation that may evoke suspicion or compromise of [a] marriage.”

As a divorcee, I agree that trust is key to marriage.  However, if the trust between a man and a woman is so weak that he cannot be alone with a woman, then that isn’t really trust.  That’s fear.  As Jeremy White tweeted, the rule “presumes either: A) you can’t be trusted or B) women can’t be trusted.”

The Billy Graham rule discriminates against women.  Full-stop.  If a man cannot be alone with a woman, he cannot mentor her through a tough situation.  He cannot take her with on a business trip to a client site.  He cannot meet with her to give her a performance review.  As a result, the woman will miss out on significant business opportunities.  She’ll miss out on activities that are critical for her success and advancement.  She’ll be held back.  This is discrimination plain and simple.

As my friend, Suzanne Lucas advises, we should “flip it to test it.”  Instead of a woman, let’s say a man cannot be alone with a black man for fear that man will claim racism. No business trips, mentoring sessions, or performance reviews for the black man.  Or a Native American.  Or an Asian American.  Or a Latino.  Or a Jew.  Or a Muslim.  Or an older man.  We’d all agree that this would be discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, religion, and age, right?  (Readers – this is where you nod.)  The Billy Graham rule perpetuates the idea that men are only safe when they are with men like them.

Instead, we need to treat each other like humans.  We see women and everyone else as humans, colleagues, partners, and equals.  We don’t withhold support, advice, and opportunities for fear of a complaint; we treat everyone with respect.  Period.

 

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