Category Archives: Discrimination

Seminar: What’s a Business to Do in the Age of #MeToo?

In light of all of the attention that is being focused on issues relating to harassment and the #MeToo movement, it is now more important than ever for businesses to develop a better understanding of what constitutes harassment in the workplace.

Join us Wednesday, April 11, at the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance’s upcoming seminar featuring Williams Parker board certified labor and employment attorney Jennifer Fowler-Hermes. Jennifer will discuss types of harassment and provide guidance on how employers can prevent, recognize, and respond to harassment.

WHEN:
Wednesday, April 11, 2018
7:30-8:00 a.m. Networking & Breakfast
8:00-9:00 a.m. Presentation

WHERE:
Keiser University
6151 Lake Osprey Drive
Sarasota, FL 34240

COST:
$10 Members, $20 Non-members

Register Online

MORE ON #METOO:
Catch Williams Parker labor and employment attorney Gail Farb discussing the #MeToo movement on a recent ABC7 news TV segment and roundtable discussion.

Intro Segment (Gail first appears at 2:31):

Roundtable Discussion (Gail first appears at 2:55).

The Tax Act May Limit Resolutions of Sexual Harassment Complaints

One aspect of the new Tax Act (the Act) that has not been widely reported impacts employers that amicably resolve claims of sexual harassment. The provision denies tax deductions for any settlements, payouts, or attorneys’ fees related to sexual harassment or sexual abuse if such payments are subject to a non-disclosure or confidentiality agreement. Specifically, Section 162(q) to the Internal Revenue Code provides:

PAYMENTS RELATED TO SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND SEXUAL ABUSE.—No deduction shall be allowed under this chapter for—

(1) any settlement or payment related to sexual harassment or sexual abuse if such settlement or payment is subject to a nondisclosure agreement, or
(2) attorney’s fees related to such a settlement or payment.

The intent of this provision is to deter confidentiality provisions in settlements of harassment claims. It is unclear if this provision will actually have the desired impact. Companies may value the confidentiality provisions more than the tax deductions permitted in their absence, and thus continue to enter into confidential settlement agreements. Alternatively, this provision of the Act may end up hurting those bringing harassment claims. Alleged victims may want confidentiality provisions in order to avoid any publicity about their claims. However, by removing tax incentives for employers, an employer may reject a higher settlement amount or settlement of claims altogether.

Section 162(q) of the Act is bound to create confusion as to its applicability as it fails to define key terms. Namely, the Act fails to define “sexual harassment” or “sexual abuse,” both of which are pivotal to the application of the new provision. The Act also fails to contemplate how the provision is to be applied in settlement arrangements involving a variety of claims. Are the sex-based claims separable from a universal confidentiality covenant? Causing further confusion, the Act fails to explain what attorney’s fees are considered to be “related to such a settlement or payment.” Are these only the fees related to settlement negotiations, drafting the agreement, and execution or payment? Or does it extend to the claim’s inception and include the underlying investigation of the claims?

In light of the numerous questions raised by Section 162(q), employers should review their standard settlement agreements and practices and consider revising the breadth of any releases, nondisclosure provisions, or any representations or remedies.

Ryan P. Portugal
rportugal@williamsparker.com
941-329-6626

What is Harassment?

In light of all of the attention that is now being focused on issues relating to harassment and the #metoo movement, employers that do not take time to review policies and train employees may be at a disadvantage if claims ever arise. It is now more important than ever for employers to develop a better understanding of what constitutes harassment in the workplace, as well as how to prevent, recognize, and respond to harassment. Sexual (and other) harassment training is not just about reviewing company policies and telling employees how to report complaints. Training should be tailored for the specific workforce, in person, and promote respect and civility. It should be geared to help employees at all levels in an organization recognize harassment and when others are uncomfortable. In addition, employees that are responsible for receiving, investigating, and responding to complaints should be trained on how to properly fulfill these duties.

Harassment can occur both inside and outside of the workplace. Certain forms of harassment, such as a woman walking down the street getting cat-called by a stranger, do not implicate the workplace at all. However, if that same woman works for a construction company and is walking past other employees of the organization when she is cat-called by them, the same conduct may be workplace harassment and actionable. For more details on what is actionable harassment, see our October 14, 2016 blog post. Not all harassment is immediately obvious, and answering the question “what is harassment?” can sometimes be a difficult task. Are you able to recognize it?

Friends star David Schwimmer and writer and director Sigal Avin released several short videos that reflect different types of harassment in society, including three that involve workplace harassment. These videos start innocent enough, but develop into awkward and uncomfortable situations. At the end of this post is a link to one of these videos. Test yourself, watch the video, and consider the following questions:

Are you able to recognize when the harassment begins?

Can you identify the non-verbal and verbal cues that the employee is giving to indicate that she is not comfortable with the interaction?

Do you think that others in your organization would be able to recognize these cues?

Jennifer Fowler-Hermes
jfowler-hermes@williamsparker.com
941-552-2558

An Employer’s Response to #MeToo

If you did not know the name Harvey Weinstein prior to October 2017, you should now, following the well-publicized allegations against him of sexual assault and harassment spanning decades. The focus on the allegations against Weinstein has resulted in women and men sharing their personal accounts of sexual assault and harassment. Often these personal accounts of improper sexual behavior are tied to the workplace and are prompting a national conversation of the abuse of power in the workplace. Many of these accounts are being made with the hashtag #MeToo. Even persons not willing to share the specifics of their experiences have been using #MeToo to confirm that they were indeed victims. The hashtag itself is not a specific call to action but instead aims to raise awareness of the magnitude of the problem of sexual assault and harassment.

Improper conduct by those in positions of power in several large companies is now being highlighted, and high-ranking officials in several of those companies are having to answer for their conduct, even if such conduct is outside of a relevant limitations period for a legal claim. On November 1, 2017, NPR’s senior vice president for news resigned on the heels of allegations of sexual harassment against him by several women, including two that, according to the Washington Post, claim that “he unexpectedly kissed them on the lips and stuck his tongue in their mouths.” Questions are now being asked regarding when NPR, and other companies, first learned of allegations of harassment and why firmer action was not taken by the company.

Due to this intense focus on harassment in the workplace, companies may want to evaluate if the policies and procedures that they have in place are sufficient, if their leadership truly understands what is appropriate behavior, and if employees are familiar with how to make complaints. To do this employers should consider the following:

  • Review written policies to ensure they are easily understood and provide the proper protections for employees
  • Conduct management training regarding harassment and appropriate behavior
  • Conduct employee training to ensure employees are aware of policies in place to protect them and understand the reporting procedures

Employers should anticipate that, with the increased focus on sexual misconduct, an issue may come up within their own companies. Understanding the issue and being prepared to provide a proper response is usually a better option for employers than merely responding to an issue when it arises.

You may also want to read our past posts relating to sexual harassment.

Jennifer Fowler-Hermes
jfowler-hermes@williamsparker.com
941-552-2558

Setting the Stage for Supreme Court Review of Whether Title VII Prohibits Sexual Orientation Discrimination

Three circuit courts of appeal have issued opinions on whether Title VII prohibits sexual orientation discrimination. The Second Circuit (New York, Connecticut, and Vermont) and Eleventh Circuit (Alabama, Georgia, and Florida), relying on past precedent, have held that Title VII does not prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, on April 4, 2017, the Seventh Circuit (Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin) issued a conflicting opinion, becoming the first circuit to hold that sexual orientation discrimination is indeed prohibited. Now, with the circuits split on this issue, the stage is set for the U.S. Supreme Court to be asked to resolve this conflict. However, recent reports opine that the employer in the Seventh Circuit case will not appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. If the employer does not appeal, another case will have to make its way through the lower courts before the divergence of opinion can take center stage at the Supreme Court.

Until the battle is fought before the Supreme Court, Florida employers should keep in mind that while Florida falls under the jurisdiction of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and thus, arguably sexual orientation discrimination is not currently prohibited by Title VII, many municipalities, including the City of Sarasota and City of Miami, have local ordinances that prohibit such discrimination. Further, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency charged with enforcing Title VII, takes the position that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation constitutes sex discrimination and is therefore prohibited.

Jennifer Fowler-Hermes
jfowler-hermes@williamsparker.com
(941) 552-2558

“One-Stop” Online Portal for Workers to Submit Complaints about their Employers?

For years, employers have been required to post notices providing employees with information about their rights and the government agencies that can assist them if they believe that their rights have been violated. Now, the Department of Labor, along with the Department of Justice, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the National Labor Relations Board, is developing a website, www.worker.gov, that will be a “one-stop” platform for employees to electronically submit complaints with the appropriate government agencies. The website will help workers understand and exercise their rights and will operate as a portal that predicts workers’ needs without forcing them to guess which federal agency or statute covers their situation.

The website is currently under development. At this time, the site merely provides guidance to specific types of employees (day laborers and office, nail salon, restaurant, and construction workers) regarding their rights and how to file complaints. Through a series of questions, the website directs employees to the appropriate government agency responsible for dealing with the specific complaint.

Jennifer Fowler-Hermes
jfowler-hermes@williamsparker.com
941-552-2558

The Customer is Not Always Right…

Most employers understand Title VII’s requirement to provide a workplace free of unlawful harassment and discrimination. Some employers may not be aware that this obligation extends beyond co-workers’ harassment to include customers’ mistreatment of employees. Recently a situation arose on an Alaska Airlines flight that demonstrated how this obligation to provide a workplace free of unlawful harassment and discrimination extends to customers.  During a female flight attendant’s life-vest demonstration, a male passenger yelled, “ooh, sexy.” When asked by the flight attendant to be respectful, the passenger responded “C’mon, I’m just playing with you.” Shortly thereafter, Alaska Airlines required the passenger to leave the plane.

When an employer becomes aware of harassment on the basis of a legally protected characteristic (sex, disability, religion, race, color, etc.), the employer is required to take prompt remedial action to protect its employees – even if the harasser is a customer.

It should be noted that despite the offensive nature of the passenger’s conduct, that conduct alone would not constitute sexual harassment creating liability for the employer. However, when combined with other conduct the flight attendant might face (from anyone, that day or over time), failure to act in the employee’s defense could certainly give rise to a harassment claim and employer liability. The EEOC advises, “Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted). The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.”

For harassing and offensive conduct to rise to the level of unlawful harassment (sexual harassment, racial harassment, etc.), the conduct must relate to a protected characteristic or conduct, and enduring the conduct must become, expressly or impliedly, a condition of employment or be so severe or pervasive that a reasonable person would consider the work environment to be intimidating, hostile, or abusive. The law also protects employees from retaliation relating to complaints and investigations.

Defending these claims is expensive. More and more employers are stepping in earlier to prevent them altogether. In this case, Alaska Airlines made a strong statement in favor of protecting employees, dissuading future conduct of this type, and prevented future claims. When the situation is not as time-sensitive, a quick call to an employment lawyer may help employers frame a diplomatic approach that fully protects the employee and prevents harassment.

Kimberly Page Walker
kwalker@williamsparker.com
(941) 329-6628

Is “Locker Room Talk” in the Workplace Sexual Harassment?

The discourse that has followed a political candidate’s recently released 2005 statements regarding women has brought renewed interest in the impact of “locker room talk” in the workplace, as well as when such talk violates the law. Sexual harassment occurs when a work-related benefit is conditioned on the granting of a sexual favor, when an employee or co-worker is subjected to unwanted sexual advances, where hostile conduct is based on the victim’s gender, and when there is offensive, sexually charged workplace behavior. Although sexual banter and ribbing of co-workers can be a basis for a sexual harassment claim, there is only a viable claim of harassment if the conduct at issue is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of employment. Thus, one offensive comment, alone, will generally not support a claim for harassment.  Regardless, one comment can result in a claim being made against the employer. Further, when one off color comment is made in the workplace and it is not dealt with swiftly and appropriately, the employer is often viewed as being complacent. It is best for employers to create a work environment that maintains respect and prohibits conduct that may one day be used as evidence of harassment.

One of the best ways to maintain a respectful workplace is to educate managers and employees about what constitutes harassment, how to report conduct believed to be harassment, and to provide training on promoting respect and civility in the workplace. The September 1, 2016, blog post discussed the EEOC’s Report on its Special Task Force Study of Harassment in the Workplace and what types of training are most effective.

Jennifer Fowler-Hermes
jfowler-hermes@williamsparker.com
941-552-2558

 

Deadline for Filing the 2016 EEO-1 Survey is September 30

The submission deadline for private employers that are required to complete the EEO-1 Survey is September 30, 2016. The EEO-1 Report, Standard Form 100, is a compliance survey that requires company employment data to be categorized by race/ethnicity. As set forth on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s website, all companies that meet any of the following criteria are required to file the EEO-1 report annually:

    1. The company is subject to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, with 100 or more employees; or
    2. The company is subject to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, with fewer than 100 employees, if the company is owned by or corporately affiliated with another company and the entire enterprise employs a total of 100 or more employees; or
    3. The company is a Federal government prime contractor or first-tier subcontractor subject to Executive Order 11246, as amended, with 50 or more employees and a prime contract or first-tier subcontract amounting to $50,000 or more
    4. https://www.eeoc.gov/employers/eeo1survey/fact_sheet_filers.cfm
    5. https://www.eeoc.gov/employers/eeo1survey/faq.cfm
    6. If your business meets one of the three criteria set forth above and you are not familiar with the EEO-1, the following links will provide essential information:

https://www.eeoc.gov/employers/eeo1survey/faq.cfm

https://www.eeoc.gov/employers/eeo1survey/fact_sheet_filers.cfm.

Jennifer Fowler-Hermes
jfowler-hermes@williamsparker.com
941-552-2558

Conducting Appropriate Training for Employees Helps Deter Workplace Harassment

In June 2016, the EEOC issued a report by its Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace. The report details how one third of the 90,000 charges filed with the EEOC in fiscal year 2015 included an allegation of harassment. However, as set forth in the report, this number does not accurately reflect of the number of persons that experience harassment at work. One of the most surprising aspects of the report is that it concludes that “approximately 90 percent of individuals who say they have experienced harassment never [took] formal action against the harassment.” EEOC Commissioner, and report co-author, Victoria Lipnic states that the reason for this failure to take action is fear: “There have been a lot of resources devoted to this in the workplace for many years, but there is a very high percentage of people who still do not report harassment. Part of that is out of fear — fear they might be retaliated against, that they might lose their job, that no one is going to believe them.”

The report also reaches the conclusion that despite efforts of employers to educate workers regarding harassment through workplace training, that most of this training is too focused on avoiding legal liability. The report suggests that different approaches to training should be explored such as bystander intervention training, as well as civility training that focuses less on harassment but instead on promoting respect and civility in the workplace.

This study and the resulting report reinforce the need to provide employees not only with training, but training designed for the specific workforce and presented by a professional. As stated in the report summary, “[in]effective training can be unhelpful or even counterproductive….one size does not fit all: Training is most effective when tailored to the specific workforce and workplace.” Employers should look closely at the training they provide to employees, ensure that it is effective and beneficial for their workplace, and consult with counsel as needed.

A summary of the EEOC’s recommendations can be found at https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/task_force/harassment/report_summary.cfm

Jennifer Fowler-Hermes
jfowler-hermes@williamsparker.com
941-552-2558