Tag Archives: workplace

Unleashing Weingarten Rights

When conducting investigations of employees in a unionized workforce, employers often feel like the lion tamer in the cage with nothing but a whip and stool between them and legal jeopardy. Unfortunately, a recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board, In re Circus Circus Casinos, may have just taken the stool away and, in doing so, created a real circus.

The National Labor Relations Act has been interpreted to allow employees to request preferred union representation for investigatory interviews that may reasonably lead to discipline. Up until [this] Circus, this right was understood to arise only if an employee requested representation. Moreover, it was well confirmed that the employee’s selection of a representative could not be used to delay an employer’s investigation. In fact, as recently as September 2017, when the NLRB released to the public an advice memorandum addressing Weingarten rights, in which it noted that:

“[I]f the employee requests an unavailable representative, it is the employee’s obligation to request an alternative available representative in order to remain under Weingarten’s protections; the employer is not required to postpone the interview, secure an alternate representative, or otherwise accommodate the employee’s specific request.”

Nonetheless, in Circus Circus the panel broke with these seemingly settled principles.

So, what led to the three-ring circus of Circus Circus? First, employer directed an engineering department temporary employee to be fitted with a respirator to comply with OSHA regulations. Citing anxiety, the employee advised the third party that was fitting the employee that he wanted to speak with a doctor. The third party denied this request and advised the employer that the temporary employee refused to cooperate.  The employer suspended the employee pending an investigation.

Subsequently, the employer’s HR representative spoke with the employee, informing him that he was to report for a “due process” meeting the next day. The HR representative advised the employee “that if he wanted Union representation that he needed to bring the steward with him.” The employee repeatedly called and left a message with his union about representation for the meeting, but he never received a return call.

The day of the meeting, the employee appeared at the employer’s facility, walking past where the union steward worked. The employee, however, did not attempt to speak with the shop steward. Instead, the employee looked around the HR representative’s office before entering, allegedly searching for a union representative. Nevertheless, no union representative was there. When the meeting began, everyone agreed that the employee stated:

“I called the Union three times [and] nobody showed up, I’m here without representation.”

After the meeting, the employee was separated. The employee would later claim that he told the employer’s representative that he wanted the union at the meeting and, moreover, the representative told him he did not need anyone present because the matter was not a disciplinary action. The employer’s representative denied these allegations.

Focusing on the employee’s statement that he attempted to reach the union, the NLRB panel, in a 2-1 decision concluded that this statement was, in fact, a request for representation. Alluding to the fact that no magic words were needed to invoke Weingarten rights, the majority decided that the employee’s statement about his unsuccessful attempt to reach a representative—standing alone—was sufficient to invoke Weingarten rights. The NLRB affirmed the administrative law judge’s order of reinstatement and backpay.

Although Circus Circus Casinos has since appealed this decision, employers will still be well-served to tread carefully when conducting employee investigations in the interim—lest they wake the lion. As such, employers may want to consider any statement by a union employee referencing their union, their steward, a witness, or a representative as invoking Weingarten rights. A failure to do so may put an employer at risk of taking a nasty bite in the form of reinstatement or back pay.

Attorney John Getty* assisted in preparing this blog post.
*Admitted in Louisiana and Georgia

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

Beyond the Hemline: Using Fashion to Recognize Employment Law Issues in the Workplace

There is a well-known saying that a person’s eyes are the keys to the soul. In the employment context, fashion choices are often keys to employee issues that not only impact employee performance and productivity, but also (should) alert employers to issues that, if not properly handled, will lead to legal liability. It may sound odd, but fashion in the workplace often provides insight into issues that implicate important employment laws, and employers should know what to look for.

When I say fashion in the workplace, I am not talking about the fashionista boss with unreasonable expectations from the 2006 movie The Devil Wears Prada (although that character has some amazing clothes), I am talking more along the line of Peter Gibbons from Office Space (1999). Peter stops coming into work on time, and when he does come in, he is dressed in casual clothing and even wears flip flops. Seriously folks, no one at Initech wondered what was up with Peter? No one investigated? I love the film, but in my Board Certified Labor and Employment attorney opinion, that is really a major plot flaw.

Consider how fashion and employment law are tied in the following scenarios:

  1. On his fifth anniversary with the company, Bob comes to work in a dress and asks to be called Barbara.
  2. Sue shows up to your conservative workplace on a Monday covered in tattoos.
  3.  Joe shows up to work wearing clothing with politically charged statements.
  4. You have an employee whose religious garb violates your company’s dress code policy.
  5. A pregnant employee comes to work with a photo of a pot plant on her shirt.
  6. Jane, who usually comes to work really put together, comes into work several days in a row wearing over-sized clothing and heavy makeup.
  7. You have an employee that appears to be wearing the same three outfits over and over.

Do you know how to properly handle these situations? Are you aware of what laws may be implicated by each? If you are interested in learning more, on Saturday, May 6, 2017, join me and another Sarasota-area employment lawyer at the Holiday Inn Lido Beach from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., where participants will be part of an interactive presentation, including a fashion show presented contemporaneously with each scenario, that addresses the above situations (and others) and, in doing so, will review the basics of several labor and employment law issues, including but not limited to:

  • Religious Accommodation
  • Florida Domestic Violence Leave
  • Family Medical Leave Act
  • Americans with Disabilities Act
  • The Transgender Workforce
  • Gender Bias
  • Medical Marijuana
  • Employment Policies
  • Political Discourse in the Workplace

Although this presentation has been arranged by the Florida Association of Legal Support Specialists, it is open to anyone interested in attending. It has been approved for three General CLER credits. In addition, both HRCI and SHRM have confirmed with the Association that non-pre-approved attendees can obtain certification credits by directly requesting credits from the organizations using the information provided on the Attendance/CLE Certificate provided the day of the event.

Please visit falss.org for more information and to register.

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

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