Making Sure Your Company Is Not the Next Harassment HashtagLike every other employment lawyer in America, I have been giving a good bit of thought to #MeToo and what it means for my clients. Many (although certainly not all) of the stories under this hashtag are about unreported harassment—egregious behavior that people did not feel comfortable reporting. My clients want to hear about a problem (and be given a chance to remedy it) before it hits Twitter or Facebook or whatever.

So, once a company has a good, solid policy prohibiting harassment (and I like to think that all of my clients do), what else should we be doing to encourage internal complaints? While this is not an exhaustive list, here are a few ideas:

  • Make sure employees know how to raise a complaint. The hotline number/email helpline/HR contact information should be widely publicized and easy to use. Make sure it is accessible to employees with disabilities or for whom English is not their first language.
  • If you haven’t done training in a while, do some. I am refocusing my training a little to talk about respect in the workplace rather than just illegal harassment prevention. Maybe the supervisor doesn’t know that it creeps his secretary out when he leans over her to look at her computer screen—but if no one tells him, he will probably keep doing it. We need to encourage employees to raise concerns before they reach a legal threshold. On the flip side, encourage supervisors to be respectful of employees’ sensibilities and not overreact if someone raises a concern.
  • Recirculate your policy and take that opportunity to personalize it a little. I had one client whose president sent an email distributing the policy, reinforcing the company culture, and encouraging people to raise concerns (even about him). They got great, supportive responses from the employees saying how much they appreciated the message. It doesn’t have to be much but should convey the following:

Our culture is that we work hard and collaboratively, and we respect our coworkers. We will not tolerate disrespectful treatment, whether it is based on sex, race or anything else. If you are experiencing a different culture, let us know.

If behavior makes you uncomfortable at work, even if you don’t think it is “harassment,” let us know so we can address it. This is true no matter who it is—coworker, boss, vendor, client, anyone. Please don’t let someone’s behavior escalate before you complain. We will handle each complaint appropriately and as confidentially as possible.

  • When you get a complaint, investigate it to the extent you can. I have had two situations in which after raising a verbal complaint, the complaining party refused to talk to our investigator. We investigated what we could and took action on what we found.
  • Don’t dismiss complaints about conduct from years ago. If someone is raising it now, you need to be sure you don’t have a current problem.
  • When people cross the line, take appropriate and decisive action to stop any harassing behavior. If you can do so with disciplinary action short of termination, that’s fine. However, if the alleged behavior is egregious and you believe it happened, you may need to fire someone.

We all think we have a good workplace culture. Now is the time to make sure our employees agree.

Blow Out Your Candles…and Clean Out Your Desk: The Dangers of Firing an Employee after Her 65th BirthdayNothing ruins a birthday celebration faster than a pink slip. Karen Ruerat, a receptionist, was terminated from her position at Professional Endodontics, P.C. four days after her 65th birthday. She alleges it was because of her age, and the EEOC is suing on her behalf, alleging violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).

The Details

Ruerat began working for Professional Endodontics in 1978 as a window greeter/receptionist. In January 2016, following 37 years of employment and, coincidentally, her 65th birthday, they terminated her. The EEOC complaint alleged that Professional Endodontics maintained an employment policy requiring its employees to retire at the age of 65, and Reurat’s termination was the result. Unsurprisingly, Professional Endodontics, in its answer, denied any and all contention that such a policy existed, as well as the claim that it treated Ruerat unfairly because of her age.

The Bigger Picture

Under the ADEA, it is unlawful to discriminate against a person because they are 40 years or older. In some limited instances, employers may avoid ADEA liability: (1) where age is a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of the par­ticu­lar business, and/or (2) where the differentiation is based on reasonable factors other than age. Generally speaking, however, any mention of age in relation to employment practices is likely to create red flags and employer headaches.

Fortunately, Professional Endodontics was able to resolve this claim by agreeing to not take any employment actions on the basis of age…and pay Ruerat $47,000. Professional Endodontics also agreed to supplement and re-distribute its existing policy with ADEA-specific language clearly stating that there is no mandatory retirement age and provide anti-discrimination training for the next two years.

What Does This Mean for Employers?

While there are clearly two sides to Ruerat’s story, employers can still take this opportunity to prevent future liability and litigation. Professional Endodontics likely did not have a mandatory retirement age; however, it also may not have clearly communicated its expectations/policies to its employees. Here, then, are a few items to help your company avoid a similar spat with the EEOC:

Avoid mentioning age (when possible) in your policies. The ADEA doesn’t have an upper age limit. Employers, then, should understand that you absolutely cannot institute a mandatory retirement age or anything that suggests people should retire. Age is a dangerous topic to broach, and for that reason employers should take care to thoughtfully review their current practices and policies.

Document employment decisions. In the normal course of business, there are countless personnel decisions made on a daily basis. It can be easy to lose track of what decision was made and why it was made. So employers should document all of their legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons when engaging in employment decisions. Create a strong paper trail so you can show that you fired an elderly employee because she couldn’t or wouldn’t do her job, not because of her age.

Use neutral communication. A lot of the tension created by employment decisions can be attributed to lapses in communication. As an employer, it is your duty to let your employees know where they stand. Whether that means reiterating performance standards or engaging in conversation over the seniority/merit/non-age based factors that you use to determine employment, be clear and stay neutral.

Provide training. With an increase in employee protections, it is never fruitless to invest in additional training opportunities for your staff. An ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure. Whether the trainings are in person or through an online platform, ensure that your workers interact with anti-discrimination content regularly to help avoid any hostility, confusion, or miscommunications in the workplace.

As your employees gain experience, they gain years on the age clock. Old or young, be sure to manage all of your employees the same way.

Happy Thanksgiving and the Many Things for Which We Are ThankfulBefore everyone gets out of the office to their various homes and families to celebrate the holiday, we wanted to review the year and count our blessings. Not only are we thankful that our families and colleagues in our Houston and Tampa offices weathered the storms safely, we are also thankful for the following legal stuff:

1. The DOL is not about to change the wage and hour laws.

Does anyone else remember the panicked calls last Thanksgiving week when the Texas judge put the brakes on a regulation that was going to increase the salary basis test? We are all thankful that will not happen this year. Although we still don’t know what, if anything, will happen on that front we will keep you posted.

2. Finally a court has said the ADA is not about leave.

Despite the EEOC’s insistence otherwise, the Seventh Circuit stepped up to the plate and said extended leave is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. As we all know, you still need to consider if a limited amount of leave will get the employee back to work but we are thankful that we have some new case law on this front.

3. Harvey Weinstein doesn’t work for us.

This story has horrified many but given all employers a wake-up call. We are grateful for the opportunity to train more people and try to make America a better place to work.

4. The NLRB has a new direction.

Maybe the new Board won’t tell employees that it is okay to swear at your boss on Facebook or nitpick employer policies quite so much.

5. You’re not going to be the employer of someone else’s employees.

DOL has withdrawn its prior guidance on independent contractor and joint employer liability, and Alabama’s Rep. Byrne has introduced a bill to “Save Our Small Businesses.”

6. Legalized marijuana has made questions about drug policies so much more interesting.

Even though it isn’t legal in many states, the fact that employees can legally ingest marijuana many places (including Florida) and take their chances on the looming random drug screen has spiced up our lives. While the law will continue to develop in this area, we are grateful for the very interesting questions we have received.

7. People other than our mothers read this blog.

(Okay, some of our moms are reading and might boost the numbers a little bit.) Since 2016, we have published more than 130 articles and had more than 230,000 reads, according to aggregate reports from Lexology and JD Supra. We have received recognition in The Expert Institute’s Best Legal Blog 2017 competition, the ABA Journal’s Web 100 Ranking, and numerous quotations in other publications. We enjoy bringing you this information and love it when you tell us it is helpful or tweet it to someone else.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Labor & Employment Insights blog team!