Written Policies to Protect Your Business During the Opioids Epidemic

With the current opioids epidemic raging across America, including in the Panhandle of Texas, employers are asking me if they can drug test current employees for prescription medications such as hydrocodone. Can a Texas employer try to prevent a workplace accident or death by testing when opiate use is suspected, or do you just have to hope that employee won’t hurt someone?

You have to consider the Americans with Disabilities Act when deciding if you are going to drug test your employees and how you should react to a positive test. The ADA protects an employee’s rights to lawfully take over-the-counter and prescription drugs to treat a disability.

However, the ADA doesn’t protect current substance abusers. So, since abuse of prescription drugs isn’t protected, how an opiate was obtained, how it is being taken, and if the employee is too impaired to work safely become crucial questions if your employee appears impaired.

Usually, I get a call from an employer about drug testing when an employee is falling asleep on the job, is slurring words, seems disoriented, has difficulty performing routine tasks, and/or is excessively absent, belligerent or erratic. At that point, drug testing may be appropriate, but I have to ask if the employer has laid the groundwork to do the drug testing and to respond appropriately to a positive test.

As with most employment law issues, you have to protect your business with well-written policies long before you are faced with an employee who appears to be high on Vicodin. Continue reading Written Policies to Protect Your Business During the Opioids Epidemic

Sexual Harassment Focus Should Prompt Employer Vigilance

To no one’s surprise, my life as an employment lawyer for the last two months has focused primarily on one issue—sexual harassment. I have conducted several investigations and advised numerous employers on this issue recently because the national news and the #MeToo movement have had a direct impact on employers in the Texas Panhandle area, including some of my smaller employers.

Female employees nationwide and locally obviously feel freshly empowered to say something about any mistreatment and to expect that their complaints will be seriously addressed. As Oprah Winfrey predicted at the Golden Globes awards ceremony, “For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up.”

While the recent sexual harassment focus is inspiring to many women as a political call to arms, business owners and human resources directors are trying figure out how to hear and handle the resulting complaints with compassion, but also with practicality. That’s where your employment lawyer can help.

Any claim of sexual harassment is what we employment lawyers consider an emergency for your company. When an employee alerts you to a problem, you have to spring into action immediately to make the complainant safe, undertake a thorough and impartial investigation of the claim and finally, resolve the matter with the appropriate discipline. At that point, it is too late to improve upon your written policy or regret a bawdy joke that you recently told.

If you are a business owner or manager in a company with at least 15 names on the payroll, you would be wise to expect to face a sexual harassment complaint sometime in the near future, and to take these six steps now to lessen the sting of such a complaint: Continue reading Sexual Harassment Focus Should Prompt Employer Vigilance

My Christmas Wishes for Employers

It is that time of year when we are singing, “We wish you a Merry Christmas”. As an employment lawyer with 30 years of experience, I have some idea of what you as a business owner or manager are wishing this Christmas.

I know you work hard as a supervisor. Managing people every day isn’t an easy job, particularly if your employees do not have a willing attitude to try to be a good employee.

I hear from employers every day about the frustrations that you face as an employer. The average person who supervises employees spends at least 20% of her time just dealing with employee mistakes, complaints, emotions, negligence, etc., on top of trying to do all of her regular work.

So, for this Christmas, I have made a list of what I wish for you as a supervisor in terms of employees.

  • Employees who realize that the purpose of a business is to make a profit, and that requires that the employee actually be present to perform the work assigned. I recently had a matter involving an employee who was tardy repeatedly for things like a flat tire, a loose dog and “I forgot to set my alarm”, so that client meetings had to be cancelled and business was lost. I wish for you as a supervisor the employment of people who realize that these little issues chip away at a business’s profitability. Even a small company should provide a generous amount of vacation time, sick leave and holiday pay. But once an employee has used up his allotted paid time off, he needs to think seriously about getting back to work and being productive for you or the business may not be there to provide his paid vacation the next year.
  • Employees who can be trusted with the success of your business, as well as the company’s time, money, and equipment. Every year I see a number of business owners in the Panhandle lose significant amounts of money to employee embezzlement, lose equipment to employee negligence and lose profitability to employee laziness. Granted, the employer needs to have reasonable checks and balances in place to try to prevent these losses. But wouldn’t it be nice if all of your employees were the kind of people who had enough integrity to forego theft, enough caution to treat your property as theirs, and enough loyalty to go above and beyond the bare minimum effort.
  • Sober employees. Most business now drug-test when an employee is hired. This has resulted in a drop nationwide in pre-hire positive drug tests. But I still see injuries and damage done by substance-abusing employees after they have worked for the business for a while. My wish is that you don’t have to deal with those issues. You can help make my wish come true by actually requiring the occasional random drug and alcohol testing in your workplace, as well as testing immediately after any personal injury or property damage occurs at work that might have been caused by an impaired employee.
  • Employees who exercise verbal discretion. Employees who gossip, spread rumors, complain, speculate and backstab in an effort to make themselves look better simply don’t realize that respect is given to those who keep their negativity and rumor-mongering to themselves. It would be great if Santa could bring each of your employees the gift of discretion this year. As someone wise said, “Discretion is the ability to raise your eyebrow instead of your voice.”
  • Employees who appreciate feedback and even criticism because it makes them better at their job. I have often thought that the clearest sign of maturity in an employee is his ability to accept constructive criticism, or even better, to ask for it. So, I wish for you employees who know that wisdom comes from humility and accountability. You deserve those employees who are not afraid to find out if they made a mistake and to ask you the best course to avoid such mistakes in the future.
  • Employees who take pride in their work regardless of who gets the credit. “My grandfather once told me that there were two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was much less competition.” – Indira Ghandi. Enough said.

Such employees sound like a dream, like a Christmas wish, don’t they? But you probably know that the best way to cultivate such employees is to lead from the top down. You must be the type of leader whose character, work ethic, sobriety, discretion and integrity are unquestionable if that is the type employee you want to employ.

As I have said before in my blog posts: “You will get the employees you deserve if you are quick-tempered, unfair, dishonest, prejudiced, undependable, selfish or disloyal to your employees. Your values, good or bad, will set the standard for everyone you supervise.”

 

         

Holiday Party Precautions

The holiday season is upon us and as employers, many of you will celebrate in that great American tradition: you will throw a big Christmas party for your employees, serve them alcohol and then turn them loose on an unsuspecting public.

Consider what could happen while the booze is freely flowing at your company holiday celebration: the alcohol emboldens a potential sexual harasser and he becomes an actual harasser of one of your staff, or a conflict between employees is fueled by alcohol and an actual physical confrontation erupt.

Another likely scenario is that your inebriated assistant gets into a car after you bought drinks at the holiday happy hour and runs down a pedestrian.

Whether the pedestrian could win a lawsuit is debatable. Back in 1987, the Texas Supreme Court said, “The risk and likelihood of injury from serving alcohol to an intoxicated person whom the licensee knows will probably drive a car is as readily foreseen as injury resulting from setting loose a live rattlesnake in a shopping mall.”

The general rule in Texas is, however, that a social host doesn’t incur liability for serving alcohol to a guest.  However, a plaintiffs’ lawyer would be happy to create new case law with a suit against an employer for encouraging an employee to get drunk at a company function and then taking no steps to protect the public from that employee on the way home.

You don’t want to be the one to provide the courts with the test case to see if an employer is responsible for its intoxicated employees. Even if you win at trial, you will lose the tens of thousands of dollars it costs to have an attorney defend the suit, you will waste valuable production time while in depositions or trial, and you and your employees will suffer a demoralizing emotional blow.

You also should be concerned about the effect that hosting a big drunken blow out will have on your ability to enforce your drug and alcohol policies at the office. This kind of inconsistency does not engender respect for you in your employees.

For the same reason, as the boss, you should watch your own drinking and behavior at any company function.

Your best decision is to honor your employees during the holidays with a party that is nonalcoholic. If you choose to serve alcohol, take a few reasonable precautions: Continue reading Holiday Party Precautions

“If True”: How to Assess Credibility in Sexual Harassment Investigations

“If these allegations are true” has been the most hotly debated qualifier used by politicians recently in reaction to all of the sexual misconduct accusations in the news.

While many politicians use the phrase out of cowardice to avoid taking an actual stand on an important issue, there is an underlying point: it is a necessity to determine credibility when someone has been accused of sexual misconduct.

Having conducted sexual harassment investigations many times during the last 25 years, I’ve often been required to determine if a victim is telling the truth or whether the accused is believable. Juries have to do the same thing.

Even if the case never goes to trial, employers have to make decisions about the right steps to take when a man (and yes, it is almost always a man) is accused of being sexually inappropriate in the workplace. The company looks to me for guidance on that decision if I am conducting the investigation or if I’m defending the employer when a claim of sexual harassment has been brought.

The first step in determining “if true” is to believe the accuser. I know that irks some people, but I have experienced too many situations where the boss’s first reaction is to tell the victim, “Don’t worry about him, Honey. That’s just the way he is. It doesn’t mean anything.”

That is an actual quote from a sexual harassment case that I handled, but I have heard variations of that speech dozens of times in my legal career. If that is the employer’s attitude, the company has already made a credibility determination without investigation—the woman is unworthy of being taken seriously after she got up the courage to complain.

Remember that believing the victim is only the first step in the process, not the end of it. That step should be followed by a prompt, fair and thorough investigation conducted by someone who does not have a horse in the race.

A sexual harassment investigation should involve interviewing the victim, any witnesses and the accused, and also reviewing documents, policies and other proof, which usually includes pictures, emails, texts, phone records, internet searches, calendars, greeting cards, and recordings.

When I am doing an investigation, I have to make a judgment about whether each witness is believable. So, my questions don’t just center on the alleged events, but also on motivations, timing, relationships and track records.

Here’s what I look at in determining whether the person I am talking to is believable: Continue reading “If True”: How to Assess Credibility in Sexual Harassment Investigations

No Peeking! Social Media in Hiring

Can the company recruiter review an applicant’s personal social media accounts before making a hiring decision? Yes, in Texas, an employer may look at any public postings, but there are enough legal risks that I would discourage you as an employer from peeking.

Why shouldn’t an employer take advantage of the wealth of information that may be available on an applicant’s Facebook page, even if the employer hasn’t “friended” the applicant? Because much of the information you could discover on an applicant’s social media is not job-related, and therefore becomes the basis for a discrimination claim.

Because many people are careless about the privacy controls on their social media profiles, you may find out that your applicant has a disability that was not obvious during the interview, but comes more clearly into view when you read the “I’m praying for you” messages on the applicant’s Facebook page. Are you going to violate the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to hire the applicant now that you know this information?

You may discover that the applicant is pregnant when you see that she announced the exciting news on Twitter. “But I want to know if she is pregnant, so I don’t lose her for twelve weeks next year,” you will tell me.

In response, I’ll refer you to the recent case of United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, et al. v. Brown & Brown of Florida, Inc., in which an applicant was offered a $13.50 per hour job with an insurance brokerage that she joyfully accepted. She told her old employer she was leaving. She followed up with the new employer and asked about the company’s maternity policy, revealing that she was pregnant. Her job offer was revoked by the brokerage that same afternoon. That revocation decision cost the brokerage $100,000 because it violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

So, do you really want to know what you may find out on social media? Three-quarters of all Human Resources professionals surveyed in 2013 by the Society for Human Resource Management said that they do not screen personal social media accounts because they fear what they will find. I advise my employer clients to exercise the same restraint.

But if you insist on peeking:

  • Screen all or none. Your electronic screening history will be subpoenaed in any discrimination claim and it will be apparent if you only screened women, for example, to see if they have young kids that might affect their attendance.
  • Don’t ask for the applicant’s passwords to their social media accounts. Many states have passed laws banning this practice and any jury that hears that you made that request will hate your guts.
  • Getting a third party to screen for you requires that you follow all of the complex requirements of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (prescreening notice, summary of rights, pre-adverse action notice, time to correct the record, post-adverse action notice).
  • Be careful what action you take once you have screened. If you determine that the applicant is transgender, Muslim, disabled or pregnant based on her FB page, are you going to risk a discrimination lawsuit by not hiring her? This is when you need to get your employment lawyer involved.
  • What if you see posts or pictures that cause you to believe that an applicant could be a threat to other employees? If you hire him anyway, you can be sued for negligent hiring if he ever becomes violent at work.
  • If you see a post reflecting union activity or protected concerted activities (discussing wages or terms and conditions of employment, such as complaining with a coworker at a former job), any adverse action you take involving that applicant could violate the National Labor Relations Act.

I don’t include LinkedIn when I am advising employers to stay away from an applicant’s social media pages. LinkedIn and similar industry sites are commonly used for business and not social purposes. Applicants are generally much more discrete about what they post on their LinkedIn pages.

In addition, posting company job openings on social media and using a service like LinkedIn to attract passive and active job applicants is common now and doesn’t run the same risks as peeking at an applicant’s personal social media pages.

Suspicious Behaviors Common in Workplace Harassers

After 30 years of advising employers, conducting sexual harassment investigations, and defending companies sued for discrimination and harassment, I have developed a list of suspicious behaviors that I see repeatedly among sexual harassers in the workplace.

I don’t think of myself as precogniscent of whether a person is actually a harasser or not prior to investigating a complaint, but I have repeatedly seen what I would call these “red flag” behaviors that certainly make it more likely that a supervisor may be accused of harassment at some point.

From the stories in the press about the sexual misconduct of Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, and others, it appears from witness statements that many of these warning signs were present and ignored by their companies before the complaints about their misbehavior finally came to light.

Red flag behaviors that employers should take very serious notice of even before a harassment complaint is filed include:

  • Any inappropriate remark at work by a supervisor that has racist, sexist or other prejudiced overtones;
  • Criticism directed towards employees of one gender, one race, those of different religious beliefs, etc. and not towards ones of the supervisor’s own gender, race or religion;
  • Comments by a supervisor that are often about an employee’s or applicant’s appearance or personal attributes rather than work-related competence;
  • A supervisor who verbally hits back aggressively when challenged by someone “beneath” the supervisor;
  • Unprofessional online behavior, such as forwarding questionable emails or viewing porn at work;
  • Attempts to cover tracks, for example, by using a texting service like Snapchat that quickly destroys messages for what are allegedly work-related conversations;
  • Flirting by a supervisor, even if it seems harmless, that makes the object of the flirting uncomfortable;
  • A supervisor who complains repeatedly about his/her marriage and acts like the victim in that relationship;
  • Supervisor dating a subordinate;
  • Supervisor who can’t be trusted to behave correctly around alcohol, such as during the company Christmas party or softball game;
  • Gifts given by a supervisor to a particular subordinate and not to others; and
  • The settlement of a prior sexual harassment complaint for an eye-popping $32,000,000 before the employer has to pay to settle five other claims. Let’s just call that one the O’Reilly Factor.

Continue reading Suspicious Behaviors Common in Workplace Harassers

Is a Helicopter Spouse or Parent Hovering Over Your Workplace?

As an employer, can you insist on an employee talking for himself rather than you listening to input from his helicopter spouse or parent? Thankfully, the answer is “yes”.

You do not need to allow an applicant’s parent or spouse to fill out the application, set up the interview, attend the interview, ask questions by text during the interview, call to ask how the interview went, or insist on knowing the salary and terms of employment when the job is offered.

In fact, if any of these occur when you are considering a job candidate, I would have to question your judgment if you hired that candidate without seriously pondering his/her maturity to actually handle a job at your company.

You are not alone if you have had to fend off interfering parents as an employer.

In 2007, the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University published a survey of 725 employers that found that nearly a quarter had encountered parental involvement in the hiring process and the early stages of workers’ careers.

Within that group of employers, more than 30 percent reported parents submitting a résumé for their children; 15 percent reported fielding complaints from a parent when the company didn’t hire their child; and nearly 10 percent said parents had insinuated themselves into salary and benefit negotiations.

New York Times, June 21, 2017.

Similarly, once an employee is working for you, you should let the employee be his/her own mouthpiece. Draw some boundaries and insist that all interactions regarding the employee’s performance, salary, attendance, misbehavior, and termination be conducted only with the employee. If the employee says he/she prefers her helicopter spouse’s involvement, say “no” and remind the employee that if he/she can’t speak for himself/herself, the employee may not be professional enough to work for your company.

I bring this up because after 30 years of employment law practice, I often think there is nothing new under the sun. Granted, Amarillo tends to lag behind nationwide trends. But for the first time this year, I have encountered this helicopter family problem frequently enough that I am recommending a new written policy to my clients along the lines of “ABC Company will discuss job-related matters only with the employee himself or herself and not family members, significant others or friends.

Sadly, the advice requested recently of me that prompted me adding this policy to employee handbooks was not pushy parents—it was helicopter spouses (or fiancées or significant others). Continue reading Is a Helicopter Spouse or Parent Hovering Over Your Workplace?

Does the First Amendment Apply at Your Company?

Does the First Amendment protect an employee in Texas, allowing him to say whatever he wants on the job–to take a knee in protest, to write a manifesto about how women don’t belong in the tech sector, or to tell the CEO of his company to “kiss my a—, Bob”?

Not a chance. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

By prohibiting Congress from passing laws that abridge freedom of speech, the Constitution did not limit a private sector employer’s right to fire an employee (on the other hand, government employees have some First Amendment protections).

In addition to no constitutional bar, businesses in Texas are protected because Texas follows the “at will” employment rule, meaning a private employer can fire an employee for a good reason, a bad reason or no reason at all, including firing an employee because the employer didn’t like something the employee said, either out loud or symbolically.

So, if Jerry Jones had decided to fire any Dallas Cowboy who kneeled during the National Anthem before the Monday Night Football game, the First Amendment would not have protected the player. Neither would Texas law. Interestingly, Jones came up with an inoffensive compromise by encouraging his players to kneel before the anthem to protest racial injustice and even kneeling with them. By the time the anthem played, the whole team was standing in unity, with arms locked together.

Google also was unhampered by the First Amendment when the company fired an employee in August for writing a manifesto blasting Google culture of diversity. Particularly, the employee argued that women occupied fewer leadership positions in the tech industry because of unsuitable personalities. For example, he said that women are more anxious, and therefore unable to handle the stress of high-powered leadership positions. He concluded that efforts by Google to place more women in technology and leadership were “unfair, divisive, and bad for business.”

However, the First Amendment’s application is not the end of the inquiry. There are other laws besides the First Amendment that an employer has to consider (in consultation with the company’s employment lawyer) before firing an employee for expressing herself.

  • Is the employee’s speech related to the employee’s religion? Employers even in the private sector cannot discriminate on the basis of religion and also must accommodate a person’s religion. The discrimination laws always trump the “at will” rule.
  • Is the employer allowing one group to express themselves but not another protected class? For example, if only African-American players for the Dallas Cowboys had kneeled during playing of the Star-Spangled Banner, but some white players failed to put their hands over their hearts, Jerry Jones may have faced a racial discrimination lawsuit if he had fired only the kneeling players for disrespect.
  • Are you punishing any employees for speaking a language other than English at work? For safety or productivity purposes, there may be a limited way in which you can do this during actual work time, but it is a very tricky area of the law and you don’t want to attempt this without serious consultation with your employment attorney.
  • Is the employee complaining about a safety violation, a crime or other public policy matter? In that case, there may be whistleblower statutes that protect the employee.
  • Is the employee expressing problems with wages, hours, shifts, policies or other terms and conditions of employment with other employees? Then the National Labor Relations Act may prohibit you from firing the employee because she is participating in “concerted activity” under this labor statute, even in a non-unionized workplace. This is what happened with the coal miner who sent a paltry bonus check back to the CEO with the words “kiss my a–, Bob” on them. A court made the coal company return that employee to work after he was fired, because his protest was protected concerted activity involving his pay.
  • Texas employers are prohibited from taking adverse action against an employee based on who the employee voted for or for refusing to reveal how he or she voted. Employers must allow employees time off to vote and to take leave to attend a local or state political convention and cannot threaten or retaliate against the employee for such attendance.

Interestingly, there are times when an employer almost has no choice but to fire an employee for expressing himself. For example, if an employee is sexually harassing another employee with lewd comments, suggestive emails and/or pornographic pictures, the hostile environment the harasser is causing with his words and actions may require the employer to fire him after completing an investigation, both to protect the company and the victim.

Employers Must Use Revised I-9 Form Beginning September 18

The very important I-9 form, which verifies a new employee’s identity and eligibility to work in the United States, has been revised again. Employers must start using the revised form on September 18, 2017.

The revision, marked “07/17/17 N” and carrying an expiration date of 08/31/19, has to be completed only by new hires. You do not have to go back and get all of your current employees to recomplete an I-9 just because the form changed after their hire date.

Employers must complete an I-9 form on each new employee within 3 days of hiring. This process started in 1986 as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which prohibits employers from taking on a new employee without verifying the employee’s identification and eligibility to work legally in the United States.

The verification is done by reviewing the employee’s identification and employment eligibility documents, such as a passport, a permanent resident card, or a driver’s license and social security card, and completing the I-9 form. There is a very helpful employer’s guide available online that shows you what a valid document is supposed to look like. Doing your due diligence requires that you consult that guide each time you look at a new employee’s documents.

Because of the views of the current administration, employers can expect an increase in enforcement of immigration laws, including more frequent ICE audits of your I-9 compliance. There are expensive penalties if you as an employer cannot produce accurately completed I-9 forms for each of your current and former employees.

The minimum fine is $216 per error on an I-9 and the maximum is $2,156 per error (including current employees and former employees) for each paperwork violation. That means that a single I-9 form which has multiple errors could cause the employer to be responsible for multiple penalties per form. If ICE determines that the employer has failed to accurately complete I-9s on at least 50% of its employees, the maximum fine of $2,156 will be levied on the employer for each form.

You must keep an I-9 form on every active employee as long as the employee works for you. For a terminated employee, you must be able to produce an I-9 for three years after the hire date or one year after termination, whichever is later. To make it easier to remember, most employers wait to purge I-9 forms until three years after an employee’s termination.

Typically, when ICE appears for an I-9 audit, they will require that you produce I-9 forms for each current employee and any employee terminated in the last three years. You are given 72-hours’ notice to pull all of these forms together, which is why many employers store the I-9 forms together rather than in each employee’s individual file.