Friday, March 6, 2015

WIRTW #358 (the “appreciation” edition)

o your employees feel appreciated? Today is Employee Appreciation Day. However, if you limit your appreciation efforts to 0.38% of a year’s working days, I can flat-out guarantee that your employees do not feel appreciated (even on their “special” day). Employee appreciation needs to be a year-round effort, not a one-off to-do to check off your corporate calendar.

Here are some thoughts, from the archives, to make employee appreciation part of your corporate culture.

Here’s the rest of what I read this week:


Social Media & Workplace Technology

HR & Employee Relations

Wage & Hour

Labor Relations

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Some harassment shouldn't be in the eye of the beholder

A hostile work environment is hostile for one of two reasons—the alleged misconduct is either severe (overtly offensive), or pervasive (repeatedly offensive). The more severe the misconduct is, the less pervasive it has to be.

In this context, consider the following from Satterwhite v. City of Houston [pdf], in which the 5th Circuit affirmed the dismissal an employee’s retaliation claim:

Satterwhite asserts that he engaged in two distinct protected activities: (1) making an oral report to human resources that Singh used the phrase “Heil Hitler” in a meeting, and (2) answering questions in connection with the OIG’s investigation of the “Heil Hitler” incident. While Satterwhite’s actions could qualify as opposing …, for his actions to be protected activities Satterwhite must also have had a reasonable belief that Singh’s comment created a hostile work environment under Title VII.

No reasonable person would believe that the single “Heil Hitler” incident is actionable under Title VII. The Supreme Court has made clear that a court determines whether a work environment is hostile “by ‘looking at all the circumstances,’ including the ‘frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.’” Furthermore, “isolated incidents (unless extremely serious)” do not amount to actionable conduct under Title VII. We have accordingly rejected numerous Title VII claims based on isolated incidents of non-extreme conduct as insufficient as a matter of law.

Thus, in Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, “Heil Hitler”  is “non-extreme conduct” (insert Southern joke here).

Two points to make.

  1. Some harassment shouldn’t be in the eye of the beholder. (Warning, offensive language ahead). Nazi jokes/comments should be sufficiently severe to raise the specter of Title VII’s protections against religions harassment. Similarly, utterances of overtly offensive terms like “nigger,” “kike,” or “cunt” should, in nearly all cases, suffice to state a claim under Title VII. There is no excuse for this stuff in the workplace. Period.

  2. If you have any doubt about point number one, it’s time for some harassment and EEO training in your workplace (which is a good idea annually anyway).

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

My latest column in Workforce: Absolut Commitment to Checking

In addition to my daily blogging, I also write a monthly column in Workforce Magazine. Here’s my latest from the March edition, discussing the import of the Fair Credit Reporting Act on employment background checks—Absolut Commitment to Checking. Enjoy.

Look inside >
Absolut Commitment to Checking

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Transfer as reasonable accommodation?

I once worked for a law firm (that shall remain nameless) that put me in a converted utility closet for my office. It was the only associate “office” open near the partners for whom I worked. It was so cramped that I has to turn sideways to shimmy past the desk to get to my chair.

I thought of this experience yesterday as I read a story on about a law firm associate who is suing her employer for disability discrimination, claiming it failed to accommodate her claustrophobia. She claims that her firm, which had previously permitted her to transfer to its Philadelphia office for different reasons, discriminatorily refused to transfer her to a nearby suburban office after she complained that the 24-floor elevator ride triggered a severe claustrophobic response. The firm initially permitted her to work from home while she sought treatment, and then allegedly fired her after she refused a transfer to an office 120 miles upstate.

Let’s start with some ADA basics. An employer does not have to create a position as a reasonable accommodation for an employee. However, transfer to a vacant position is a reasonable accommodation that an employer must consider when engaging a disabled employee in the interactive process.

These rules only tell part of the story for this case. What is a “vacant” position for a law firm associate? Could she still have serviced the same clients, and worked on the same cases, from a suburban office 10 to 20 miles away? Moreover, why did the employer cease the telecommuting accommodation after only one month, and only after the employee rejected the accommodation that would have required a four-hour daily commute, or for her to move upstate? These are fact issues that the court, or, maybe, a jury will have to work out as this case proceeds.

These questions, though, illustrate the type of dialogue you need to have both internally and with your employee whenever that employee requests a reasonable accommodation. Better to hash them out internally, then in court, right?

Monday, March 2, 2015

Do you know what to do when OSHA comes knocking?

News broke over the weekend of a fatality at a local manufacturing plant. Undoubtedly, OSHA was on the scene to unravel what happened.

Injuries or fatalities aren't the only reasons OSHA might arrive at your door. It might have received a complaint from a current or former employee. It might a random investigation. You might be part of a targeted industry. Or, it could be a follow-up from a prior investigation.

Regardless, when OSHA arrives, whatever the reason, your personnel needs to know that the first call should be to your employment lawyer. Unless the investigator has a search warrant or subpoena, he or she has no right to enter your business, no matter what he or she says to bully through your door.

OSHA is not your friend. It is not there to give you an atta-boy on workplace safety. It is there to find violations and levy fines to make money for OSHA. This is not cynicism; this is fact. And once it is through your door, everything becomes fair game, no matter the reason for the investigation.

OSHA's fines range from a maximum of $7,000 for each serious violation, and a maximum of $70,000 for each willful or repeat violation. Trust me, these numbers add up quickly.

What is OSHA looking for? Here is the agency's Top 10 list, right from its website:

  1. Fall Protection
  2. Hazard Communication
  3. Scaffolding
  4. Respiratory Protection
  5. Lockout/Tagout
  6. Powered Industrial Trucks
  7. Electrical – Wiring Methods
  8. Ladders in Construction
  9. Machine Guarding
  10. Electrical – General Requirements

If you are fortunate enough not to have OSHA in your facility, use the time to conduct a top-to-bottom safety audit. Call a workplace safety expert. Call an employment lawyer. Call someone knowledgable in this area to tell you what needs to be fixed before OSHA does it for you. And, if (when?) OSHA shows up at your door, call your employment lawyer to handle the investigation, mitigate the disruption, and, as best as possible, limit damage.


Friday, February 27, 2015

WIRTW #357 (the “proud papa” edition)

My kids go to an amazing school. Part of what makes it amazing is that beginning in third grade the second parent-teacher conference is student led. Last night, my wife and I experienced our first Norah-led conference.

The conference blew me away. I knew that Norah would be presenting her PowerPoint on Neptune, the culmination of weeks of research and hard work. I was not prepared, however, for the conference to be 100% student led. My wife and I watched and listened for nearly 45 minutes as, working off a prepared agenda, Norah ran the meeting and walked us through all she’s done for the past four months. She presented a dramatic monologue. She shared a story she had written in her creative writing journal. She demonstrated how she’s learned 3x2 multiplication. She displayed her self-assessed progress report (she’s much tougher on herself than her teacher would have been). The conference capped with Norah’s Neptune PowerPoint, which, with her permission, I’m sharing with you.

Here’s the rest of what I read this week:


Social Media & Workplace Technology

HR & Employee Relations

Wage & Hour

Labor Relations


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Reading the #SCOTUS tea leaves: headscarves, religious accommodations, and Abercrombie

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. (transcript here [pdf]), which will hopefully determine the circumstances under which an employer must, as a religious accommodation, grant an exception to its “Look Policy” for a hijab-wearing job applicant. More broadly, employers hold out hope for some more generalized guidance on what they should do when a corporate policy conflicts with an employee’s sincerely held religious belief.

What an interesting argument. The Justices seemed very skeptical of requiring employees to raise the issue of a reasonable accommodation in a job interview, and instead suggested that the burden should fall on an employer to bring up the issue. For example, Justice Kagan asked:

You’re essentially saying that the problem with the rule is that it requires Abercrombie to engage in what might be thought of as an awkward conversation…. But the alternative to that rule is a rule where Abercrombie just gets to say, “We’re going to stereotype people and prevent them from getting jobs. We’ll never have the awkward conversation because we’re just going to cut these people out.”

The criticism of the employer, however, was not limited to the Court’s left wing. Justice Alito also seems skeptical that an employer can simply ignore an obvious potential need for an accommodation simply by denying employment.

All right.  Let’s say …­­ four people show up for a job interview at Abercrombie…. So the first is a Sikh man wearing a turban, the second is a Hasidic man wearing a hat, the third is a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, the fourth is a Catholic nun in a habit. Now, do you think … that those people have to say, we just want to tell you, we’re dressed this way for a religious reason. We’re not just trying to make a fashion statement….

I want to know the answer to the question whether the employee has to say, I’m wearing this for a religious reason, or whether you’re willing to admit that there are at least some circumstances in which the employer is charged with that knowledge based on what the employer observes.

Justice Alito then offered a very practical solution:

Well, couldn’t the employer say, we have a policy no beards, or whatever, do you have any problem with that?

Reading the tea leaves, I predict another employee-side victory from this conservative-majority court. If we are assigning burdens, it seems to me that the Court thinks it makes sense to place the burden on the party with more information (the employer) to explain the job requirements to determine if a potentially obvious religious belief conflicts. Otherwise, you are requiring the employee to guess at whether an accommodation is needed at all.

Stay tuned. This will be a very interesting opinion to read when it is released later this year.

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