Category Archives: Discrimination

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

“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

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.

Preventing Racism and Incivility in Your Workplace

As a business owner or manager, you have the opportunity and the responsibility to combat racism and hatred in your workplace. Despite the bitterness of current political discourse and the appalling display of racism in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend, or maybe because of it, everyone deserves to be able to go to work and feel accepted, valued and safe.

From a legal perspective, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the discrimination statutes of every state prohibit racism. Racist expressions in the workplace can lead to discrimination cases that are costly, both in terms of money and company goodwill. For example, a Dallas milling company settled with the EEOC in 2012 for $500,000 after 14 African-American employees alleged that their supervisors did nothing when the complainants faced racist graffiti and slurs by co-workers, including “KKK”, swastikas, Confederate flags, and “die, n—-r, die” as well as nooses displayed in the workplace.

This kind of discrimination can hijack the future of a company. Why would anybody with a conscience choose to work there ever again? Or do business with such a company once these actions were known? No amount of wise counsel from an employment lawyer like me can really defend, much less restore a company’s prosperity after these sorts of egregious actions are allowed to occur.

Employers trying to avoid discrimination lawsuits and to build a culture of decency can put into place anti-discrimination policies and training, can immediately investigate and take remedial action when racism is suspected or discovered, and can make advancement and better pay at the company dependent on an employee’s or manager’s embracing of equality.

But perhaps the most important way you can prevent discrimination at your company is by setting an example of what you expect from your employees. You are the yardstick by which your company is measured.

Christine Porath, a leading authority on decency in the workplace, says in her book that 25% of employees acknowledge that they acted uncivilly in the workplace because they saw their bosses acting that way.  As the boss, you need to have zero tolerance for incivility because it is like a gateway drug—incivility often becomes prejudice, harassment and discrimination. Getting away with one often leads to the others.

As a business owner or supervisor, you set the tone for your employees. Your words and actions determine if the workplace is respectful or hostile. You must tell your workers that bigotry is unacceptable and that you have a zero tolerance for stereotyping, name-calling, racial slurs, bullying and other abusive behaviors.

But more importantly, you personally must show your employees, not only by avoiding participating in these kinds of abuses, but also by making a special effort to “be the behavior you want to see” in your employees—respectful of all people, patient, empathetic, humble, transparent, honest and self-controlled.

Ending racism in the workplace is not just your legal responsibility—it is a moral one. Continue reading Preventing Racism and Incivility in Your Workplace

Running Off an Underperforming Employee Is Not a Viable Option

In my long experience as an employment law attorney, I have come to realize that employers really, REALLY hate to fire employees. Some employers are scared of confrontation, others hate admitting they made a bad hire, and some just can’t find the right words.

Whatever the reason for being unable to fire a poor performer, employers often ask me about “running off the employee”. Running off an employee usually means making the employee so miserable the employee will voluntarily quit.

The employer trying to run off an employee may give the employee the worst duties at the company, criticize the employee in front of others, deny the employee’s vacation request, cut the employee’s pay, transfer the supervision of the employee to the worst supervisor, or make the employee work the graveyard shift.

Of course, this approach to termination often also makes the employee so angry that when the employee leaves, he or she becomes much more likely to sue the employer.

Running off an employee is the layman’s way of doing what we in the legal field call a “constructive termination”. A constructive termination occurs when the employer makes the working conditions so intolerable that any reasonable employee would feel forced to resign.

When an employee quits with good cause because the employer made continuing to work there intolerable, there are numerous legal consequences, such as: Continue reading Running Off an Underperforming Employee Is Not a Viable Option

Workplaces Must Accommodate A Nursing Mother

A nursing mother in your workplace has certain employment rights that you as an employer must understand. Until the time that the child is one year old, Texas employers must provide the time and space for the mother to breastfeed the baby (if children are allowed at the workplace) or to express milk to be stored for later.

The federal compensation law, the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), was amended in 2010 to require employers to provide nursing mothers with “reasonable” break time to pump breast milk. Employers must realize that there is no one definition of what is “reasonable” that applies to every new mother.

The Department of Labor says in its Fact Sheet #73 regarding Break Time for Nursing Mothers, “employers are required to provide a reasonable amount of break time to express milk as frequently as needed by the nursing mother. The frequency of breaks needed to express milk, as well as the duration of each break, will likely vary.” Speaking from experience, nursing may take 10 minutes, 25 minutes, 40 minutes or even longer and isn’t standardized from mom to mom, day to day, or break to break.

If you provide coffee breaks or meal breaks during the day to other employees and pay them during that break (which the FLSA requires you to do if the break is less than 20 minutes), then you should allow your nursing mothers to use those breaks if convenient and be paid during those breaks just like any other employee.

Otherwise, nursing breaks do not have to be compensated, so you can require a nonexempt (hourly) employee to clock out during the break so that the nursing break isn’t paid. If that means that the employee has to stay longer each day to actually perform work for 40 hours per week, you as an employee can require that extra time. Or you can choose to pay the employee for only the hours worked, which may be less than 40 when lots of nursing breaks are taken.

The easiest way to address compensation is to have a written policy that states that all nursing breaks of 20 minutes or less are paid, but longer breaks are unpaid.

You also have a responsibility as an employer to provide a place for the nursing mother to breastfeed or express milk. That place cannot be a bathroom. The area must be private with a lock on the door or another way to assure that the public and/or coworkers won’t barge in while the employee is nursing or pumping. If you have more than one nursing mother employed at a time, it is common practice to have a sign up or reservation-type system for the room you designate for expressing milk.

The secluded place the employer provides must be functional for expressing milk, meaning it should at least be furnished with a comfortable chair. Many employers provide a small dorm-sized refrigerator and a Sharpee in the nursing area so that the expressed milk can be labelled and dated and kept cool until the new mother can take it home.

Texas allows employers who adopt a new mother-friendly written policy to advertise that it is a “mother-friendly” business. If that “carrot” approach doesn’t convince you, then the “stick” is that failure to provide adequate breaks and a secure place for nursing mothers means that not only will your business be violating the FLSA, but also the employee can bring a sex discrimination or sexual harassment action if you have at least 15 employees.

A federal court has also ruled that breastfeeding is a medical condition related to pregnancy and maternity, so you can also be sued under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. You must additionally prevent an employee from being retaliated against for exercising her rights as a nursing mother, i.e., you must assure that her supervisor doesn’t give her a poor evaluation or demote her because her nursing rights create some disruption in the office.

Small employers (less than 50) have one defense to these kinds of claims. Continue reading Workplaces Must Accommodate A Nursing Mother

Hiring Older Applicants Protects Against Age Discrimination Claims

As older applicants know, getting a new job when you are over 50 years old is difficult and the reason often involves age discrimination. Employers like to recruit youthful employees, but they overlook the expertise and loyalty that older workers offer. Graying workers are fighting back in the form of age discrimination suits, so employers would be wise to reevaluate their aggressive pursuit of young workers.

Texas Roadhouse, the restaurant chain, recently agreed to a $12 million settlement in an age bias suit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that Texas Roadhouse overlooked older applicants for server, bartender and host positions. The restaurant denied any wrongdoing, but after spending years in litigation and countless dollars on attorneys’ fees, Texas Roadhouse agreed to ensure that older applicants are considered consistently alongside younger ones. Silicon Valley is also facing allegations that no one over 40 is welcome to apply for a job (women of all ages face similar barriers in the tech industry).

In a more unique claim, PriceWaterhouseCoopers is the defendant in a class-action lawsuit targeting its college campus recruiting program. The 53- and 47-year-old named plaintiffs allege that their applications for entry-level positions were rejected because they did not fit PwC’s usual profile of a Millennial college grad starting a career in accounting. The plaintiff’s pleading scornfully mentions PwC’s brochures featuring lots of smiling 20-somethings. PwC admits that 80% of its employees were born in 1980 or later. Statistics like that make PwC a rich target for an age bias suit by an angry Baby Boomer or Gen X’er.

Smart employers are learning that the emphasis on hiring people under 40 can backfire. In 2016, more than 20,000 age discrimination claims were filed with the EEOC and another 2500 such claims were made to the Texas Workforce Commission that year.

Employers who fail to hire older workers risk more than just lawsuits. They miss out on the loyalty and tenure of older employees. While young people are prone to changing jobs frequently, older applicants tend to stay and be productive for many years. Society for Human Resource Management research shows that the employers they surveyed have discovered that older workers are more “mature/professional” and have a “stronger work ethic”. They found that contrary to stereotypes, older workers actually miss less work days and are excited to learn new things.

Mature workers often have broad networks and contacts. Their work and life experience mean they require little training or supervision. And many applicants born in the 1950s and 1960s have been using computers consistently since the Apple 1 was invented, so their technical skills are well-honed.

These realizations have caused some employers to adopt an “older workers first” preference in their hiring practices.

How can you as an employer avoid age bias mistakes with your recruiting and hiring and take advantage of the benefits of hiring older workers? Continue reading Hiring Older Applicants Protects Against Age Discrimination Claims