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.

The EEOC’s fiscal year just ended and now it is releasing news of its successes. Although this is a look back, it gives us all insight as to what is important to the Commission and, perhaps, how we can stay off its radar. While the official report is being released today, here are some highlights.

Tis the Season: The EEOC’s Year-End Reports Are Out TodayMore Efficiency, Quicker Resolution?

The EEOC is working on being more efficient and thinks it is making some progress. First, offices are prioritizing charges to focus on meritorious charges and disposing of charges more quickly. It received more than 84,000 charges of discrimination in the last fiscal year and, through its improved efficiencies, reduced its backlog to the lowest it has been in 10 years.

Another innovation is the new EEOC Public Portal that was just launched nationwide. This appears to be the flip side of the employers’ Respondent Portal that we have been using for the last few years. Employees can now find out how to file a charge, set up interviews with the EEOC and check the status of their charges all from the comfort of their homes.

More Money, More Lawsuits

As with so many government agencies, the EEOC is touting the amount of money it has recovered. The EEOC collected nearly $400 million from employers in the private sector and state and local government. Of that amount, the vast majority ($355.6 million) was paid voluntarily — through mediation, conciliation and other administrative enforcement.

On the litigation front, the EEOC recovered $42.4 million through litigation last year. The EEOC also stepped up the number of lawsuits it filed. The commission filed 184 lawsuits, more than doubling the number from FY 2016. Of the 184 suits, about 67 percent were for individuals, while only 16 percent were systemic suits.

Training Resources

You can now have the EEOC Training Institute staff train your supervisors (Leading for Respect) and employees (Respect in the Workplace). I have a client who has had the EEOC come provide harassment training for the last several years, and it looks like the Commission is institutionalizing those efforts. As the program is new, I cannot tell you what it is like. However, it is certainly something to consider, particularly in the wake of recent harassment complaints.

Takeaways

First, the EEOC is clearly trying to reduce the amount of time a charge spends with the agency. We have all had charges that were pending for more than two years—which then means you could have to defend a lawsuit with a back-pay figure that is already out of control. Perhaps the improved efficiencies will make these stale charges a thing of the past.

Second, the EEOC wants to resolve the charges early and is having some success doing so. I always talk with clients about EEOC mediation—and it works with many (although not all) charges. I have also noticed that EEOC investigators try to encourage settlement discussions even when the parties have not agreed to mediate the charge. Although I was initially leery of having the purportedly neutral investigator orchestrate negotiations, for the most part I have found the investigators’ efforts to be helpful and have resolved some charges (usually low dollar) in that way.

Third, note that the majority of the EEOC’s lawsuits are filed on behalf of individuals —not multiple plaintiffs or systemic issues. The EEOC has a list of priorities (harassment, pay disparity and disability are perennial favorites) and wants to make law on those issues. These numbers make clear that the Commission is willing to make that law one plaintiff at a time.

Finally, IMHO the best training involves your employment counsel. However, the EEOC’s training resources are worth considering. If you use these resources, it will be tough for the Commission (or a plaintiff’s lawyer) to argue that you don’t take prevention seriously.

Around the end of October, a photo of a government contractor employee flipping the bird to President Trump’s motorcade went viral after the woman made it her profile picture on Facebook. She was subsequently fired for a violation of her company’s social media policy. The company said that the image was “lewd” and “obscene.” The woman argued that she was not at work when the photo was taken and did not mention her employer in the post. No litigation or charges have been filed yet, but would they be successful?

Can an Employer Regulate Political Social Media Speech?

Flipping Out Over Flipping Off: What Are the Limits on Regulating Employee Political Speech?

What comes to most people’s mind when reading this type of scenario is the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. However, the First Amendment protects against governmental censorship of speech. With some restrictions, a private employer can restrict speech in the workplace. This right to restrict also may be extended to social media speech, especially when the employer has a written social media policy and if the employee is using employer-provided equipment (cell phone or computer) to engage in the speech. Coupled with the fact that many states are “at-will” employment states, it may be perfectly acceptable for an employer to terminate an employee who engages in speech that the employer finds offensive or non-productive.

One complication outside of the First Amendment is the National Labor Relations Board’s recent decisions that employees cannot be restricted from commenting on social media about their conditions of employment. The NLRB considers such comments to be “concerted protected activity” for which an employer may not retaliate. However, as seen here, there may be social media posts that have nothing to do with the conditions of the workplace, but that the employer doesn’t like. For those posts, discipline or termination may be an option.

This story is a good prompt for employers to review their social media policies and to talk about them with their employees. Remind employees that, although they may not expressly identify each post with the place they work, they still may be considered the face of the organization. Political discussions are not per se taboo—but the tone and language used may sometimes stray into offensive territory. As always, an open dialogue about employment policies usually results in happier employees and less difficult situations.