Friday, November 18, 2011

Permission to Smack the Morons

The Philadelphia Inquirer is "reporting" today that pregnancy discrimination in the workplace still persists.

The absurdity of pregnancy discrimination is difficult to fathom when examined from a higher altitude.

The demands that are placed on mothers --- by us as children --- and by spouses, are the kinds of demands that would humble most men.  And lets not even talk about childbirth itself.   Many men behave as though they are dying and incapacitated when simply suffering from the common cold, while many women are still handling full-time childcare, familycare, and homecare demands (all while battling a 102 degree fever).

So it's difficult to understand in the abstract why an employer can have one attitude regarding his own mother or spouse, but an altogether different attitude about that employee who had the unmitigated gall to get pregnant.  It would make George Orwell smile.

There are instances when money damages may not be enough.  The Plaintiff should be permitted also to give the Defendant a smack upside the head.  Kudos to the Plaintiff's counsel here, and shame on the employer.

Friday, November 11, 2011

As I was just saying....

     Not a day after I commented upon the difference between talking diversity and doing diversity, I read in the Philadelphia Business Journal this article pointing out that the hiring of women at big law firms has declined, according to an annual survey by the National Association of Women Lawyers.

     But how is this possible?  How many big firms now have "diversity officers?"  How many profess to provide extensive diversity programs (so they can secure business from clients who insist upon hiring law firms with diversity programs)?  I called the National Bar Association, the US' oldest and largest association of African American lawyers and judges to find out whether they do a similar survey and was unable to find one.

     On the other hand, the American Bar Association has done such studies and found, among other things, that nearly 100% of women of color practicing law have left the practice within a decade after starting.  I am also personally aware of three bar associations with active "diversity committees," but whose membership continues to be a sea of white, male faces (notwithstanding the fact that as a whole, the United States is becoming a sea of considerably diverse faces, which means eventually a serious disconnect between lawyers and their clients).

     As I commented yesterday, it's the doppler shift ---- everyone sees things from their own point of view, but it's basically the same thing if everyone were looking at it at the same time ---- it's sexism and it's racism and it's other types of "isms" prohibited by law, but routinely practiced.

     So if you watch Sheryl Sandberg tonight on Charlie Rose, you can choose to believe the one speeding away on the train to success, or you can look at the numbers.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Diversity and the Doppler Shift

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was recently interviewed by Charlie Rose in an interview to be broadcast Friday, November 11, 2011. She was interviewed jointly with Mark Zuckerberg in a wide-ranging discussion including Facebook's competitive stance, Google+, gaming, and Steve Jobs. The entire transcript is already available on TechCrunch here.

As an employment lawyer, of particular interest to me are Ms. Sandberg's comments near the end of the segment that she believes women aren't always "ambitious" enough to succeed. She made reference to a Harvard Business School case study by Kathleen McGlinn in which a highly successful woman's career path was outlined for study participants, and the individual was alternatively given a female name (Heidi) or a male name (Howard) and the participants were asked to give their impressions. Sandberg commented

[T]he point of that study is that success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively for women. So as a man gets more powerful and more successful, everyone — men and women like him more. And as a woman gets more powerful and successful, everyone, including women like them less.

(To be fair, and not take her completely out of context, Ms. Sandberg elaborates on these issues in a TED Talk, "Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.")

Too often individuals of diverse background who have made it onto the "success train" appear more concerned about saving their seats on that train than allowing anyone else on the train. Time and again, I have encountered women who faced more difficulties with women supervisors, and minority candidates getting a harder time of it from supervisors of the same race or ethnicity. It is almost as if these supervisors are saying "I've made it; one is enough." it is like the sociological equivalent to the doppler shift, where the motion through time and space changes the frequency of sound and light to the viewer without doing so for the one who is moving or advancing.

Sales training courses teach us that people want to do business with people like them. That's taking the easy way out, and completely fails to realize that the world (and the USA in particular) is becoming increasingly diverse.

I have participated in any number of entities who have established "Diversity Committees" to attempt to attack these problems. More often than not, the committees make recommendations, sometimes actually change their by-laws, but not their underlying opinions (and biases). More importantly, actual results are even more rare. But the participants wring their hands and say "but we discussed diversity!"

Talk is cheap. It also doesn't accomplish a whole heck of a lot.

To put it another way, I believe Ms. Sandberg is mistaken when she suggests women aren't as ambitious. They just don't seem so to her. I don't believe she is looking at the situation from a genuine diversity perspective.

Therein lies the challenge of diversity --- diversity implies seeing things from diverse points of view, not just one. If everyone saw things from diverse perspectives, change would be inevitable.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Resources for TriCounty Community Network Attendees

Thanks for the opportunity to speak this morning at the TriCounty Community Network Meeting in conjunction with S.A.F.E.'s recognition of Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

I wanted to post a few resources I was not able to get to during our presentation this morning. Frankly, I enjoyed a broader panel experience (and abbreviated remarks) to provide a better variety of viewpoints on addressing the issue of domestic violence. I know that TCN will have contact information for the panel posted, so I won't repost that here.

However, here are some resources I mentioned (and a few which I did not):

1. This pamphlet, entitled "Be Safe Sensible Prepared" is a joint product of the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence and the ABA Tort Trial & Insurance Practice Section. In addition, links to the two ABA groups are hyperlinked to their names above.

2. The Philadelphia Ordinance (Bill No. 090660-A) providing for leave for victims of domestic violence and/or sexual abuse may be found here. There's nothing in Federal or Pennsylvania law which would preclude individual municipalities from passing equivalent ordinances (except perhaps strident objections from local chambers of commerce.)

3. Information about two pieces of Federal legislation recently introduced can be found here ("Balancing Act of 2011") and here ("Healthy Families Act"). Since watching legislation made is like watching sausage being made (as Otto von Bismarck allegedly suggested), I cannot prognosticate the future for either bill.

4. In my research I also discovered this excellent piece called "Top 10 Things Employers Can Do About Domestic Violence" from the Crisis Connection, an organization located in Southern Indiana.

Finally, to restate my basic points:

1. Employers cannot ignore the problem of domestic violence, regardless of how "difficult" it is to address (as we heard this morning), liability is lurking around every corner;

2. Employers should have a policy and should plan for dealing with domestic violence (as more than one speaker suggested); and

3. There's lots of help available if you take the initiative.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Little Press never Hurts

We were quoted in a recent article by Gabrielle Banks in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette regarding lawyers' online conduct (and misconduct, as the case may be).

A thanks to Jennifer Ellis, Esquire, whose blog "Jennifer Ellis, JD" is a must read for any techno-lawyer.

I know I said something along the lines of "how much trouble can you get in 140 characters."

As many know, a heap of trouble is the answer ---- but not if you are careful (and have at least half a brain.)

I will return to my discussion of retaliation claims shortly, as well as be discussing how workplaces need to handle domestic violence, and a review of the U.S. Supreme Court's past and upcoming terms.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Five Things Every Employer Needs to Know About Retaliation Claims

1. Employers can be liable for retaliation even if ultimately there was no underlying discrimination.

Retaliation claims result from an employer taking an adverse action against an employee who has a ‘good faith’ belief that they have been discriminated against. That doesn’t require the employee to be right, only to have a good faith belief that he or she is right. If there is such a good faith belief, and if the employer punishes them for that belief, the employee can bring a retaliation claim and may even prevail.

2. Juries are much more likely to find in favor of the Plaintiff on a retaliation claim than the underlying discrimination claim.

Jurors do not like to use labels such as “bigot,” “sexist” or “liar.” On the other hand, jurors do have a deep sense of fair play, and even where they are unwilling to find discrimination, they will find retaliation if they believe that the employer has not played fair with the employee claiming discrimination.

3. Everyone connected with the investigation is protected from retaliation.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that protection from retaliation even extends to employees who participate in internal investigations, even where those investigations don’t arise from the participant’s own complaints, and even where somebody other than the complainant is retaliated against!

4. An employer doesn't have to fire an employee to cause that employee to suffer an adverse employment action.

All kinds of consequences constitute “adverse employment actions” in the employment discrimination arena. Unpaid suspensions; demotions; discrimination in job assignments; shift changes; name-calling; use of certain discriminatory props (e.g. nooses) all can be interpreted as adverse employment actions, and thereby trigger retaliation claims. Any action which "may well dissuade" an individual from bringing a good faith claim of discrimination may constitute unlawful retaliation.

5. Employers can eliminate most claims with proper internal policies and procedures.

Where an employer has an internal procedure for addressing discrimination complaints and the employee does not utilize that procedure, the employer may be able to avoid liability altogether. In addition, prompt remedial measures and a competent investigation can reduce the likelihood of a retaliation claim.

I will explore further each of these points in upcoming posts.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

To pay or not to pay.....employees who miss time on "snow days"

I happened to have a client ask me this very question this morning, so here’s my “official” response, and an unofficial one.

According to a letter advisory from the United States Department of Labor:

The Department of Labor considers an absence due to adverse weather conditions, such as when transportation difficulties experienced during a snow emergency cause an employee to choose not to report for work for the day even though the employer is open for business, an absence for personal reasons. Such an absence does not constitute an absence due to sickness or disability. Thus, under the policy you described above, an employer that remains open for business during a weather emergency may lawfully deduct one full-day’s absence from the salary of an exempt employee who does not report for work for the day due to the adverse weather conditions. Such a deduction will not violate the salary basis rule or otherwise affect the employee’s exempt status. Please note, however, that deductions from salary for less than a full-day’s absence are not permitted for such reasons under the regulations. If an exempt employee is absent for one and a half days due to adverse weather conditions, the employer may deduct only for the one full-day absence, and the employee must receive a full-day’s pay for the partial day worked, in order for the employer to meet the “salary basis” rule. See 29 C.F.R. § 541.602(b)(1).
A simplified approach to this is as follows:
  1. Office closed: Salaried (i.e. exempt) employees' pay unaffected; Hourly employees may be docked.
  2. Office open: Salaried employees' pay unaffected, leave time may be debited; Hourly employees may be docked.
  3. Regardless of whether open or closed: Hourly employees can be docked for partial days; Salaried employees cannot.
See also the Department of Labor's Wage & Hour Division letter FLSA2005-41.

Of note is the following language:

Since employers are not required under the FLSA to provide any vacation time to employees, there is no prohibition on an employer giving vacation time and later requiring that such vacation time be taken on a specific day(s). Therefore, a private employer may direct exempt staff to take vacation or debit their leave bank account in the situation presented above, whether for a full or partial day’s absence, provided the employees receive in payment an amount equal to their guaranteed salary. In the same scenario, an exempt employee who has no accrued benefits in the leave bank account or has a negative balance in the leave bank account still must receive the employee’s guaranteed salary for any absence(s) occasioned by the employer or the operating requirements of the business.
A few thoughts, though, about how an employer approaches the issue:

1. Is there inclement weather where you are? (If there isn't ever inclement weather where you are, leave a comment about where you are so I can take a look at real estate nearby....) Every employer ought to have an inclement weather policy. Does your employer bother to at least post a list of “holidays” each year? (Most do). Just add a sentence or two about inclement weather.

2. Employers whose staff likes coming to work generally fare better in the marketplace. Ever heard of Zappos? Google? Employers should make a decision whether to be "open" or "closed," and not force employees to trudge to work through dangerous conditions or face a short paycheck. Employers will nearly always make more money with happy, productive employees than with employees who feel they are victimized.

3. Employers should consider setting a limit like school districts do. 3 days a year? 5 days a year? Make it part of employees' personal days if you like (since, as quoted above, Federal law does not require that an employer provide: (1) personal days; (2) sick days or (3) vacation days. (Note, we're Pennsylvania based here. Check your local jurisdiction to see whether your state or local law requires a mandatory offering of personal, sick and/or vacation days.)

And as
Sergeant Phil Esterhaus used to say on Hill Street Blues, "Let’s be careful out there…."