Two nooses hanging near a loading dock and racist graffiti on a company truck designed to be seen by the company’s African-American employees will almost certainly lead to an expensive racial harassment lawsuit against a business, but the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently sided with an employer who promptly took five comprehensive steps in response to this reprehensible conduct.
In its June 2018 opinion, the Court held that YRC, the employer, responded appropriately to these incidents at its Irving, Texas facility. The opinion gives all employers helpful guidance on how to combat harassment in the workplace. Tolliver v. YRC, Inc. (5th Cir. 2018).
It is important to note that the Court acknowledged that the racist actions were “morally unacceptable” and “reprehensible. But the plaintiffs didn’t allege that the acts were directed specifically toward them and “for the most part, learned about the acts secondhand”. So, the Fifth Circuit did not find that this conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive enough to change the terms or conditions of employment as to these particular employees, meaning that their personal racial harassment claims weren’t strong to begin with.
But what really mattered to the Court is that the employer took prompt remedial action to protect all employees after these horrifying incidents occurred. The steps YRC followed offer guidance for all employers facing any kind of harassment situation, whether involving racial harassment, sexual harassment, ethnic harassment, etc.
Employees can discuss their wages with their coworkers, despite many employers’ policies to the contrary. If this wasn’t clear enough when the National Labor Relations Board and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals emphatically told employers that (see this post for more information), now the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is joining the chorus.
On January 21, 2016, the EEOC issued a 73-page proposed guidance to its investigators concerning retaliation claims. All of the laws EEOC enforces, like the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII, make it illegal to fire, demote, harass, or otherwise retaliate against applicants or employees because they complained to their employer about discrimination on the job, filed a charge of discrimination with EEOC, participated in an employment discrimination proceeding (such as an investigation or lawsuit), or engaged in any other “protected activity” under employment discrimination laws (more on the proposed guidelines concerning retaliation is coming in future posts).
Slipped into the middle of the proposed guidance is a section emphasizing that not only will the National Labor Relations Board come after you as an employer for unfair labor practices if you fire someone for discussing their wages, but that the EEOC might pursue a claim against you also. The EEOC said that reprisal for discussing compensation may violate the retaliation provisions of laws it enforces, such as the Equal Pay Act (requiring that similarly-situated women be paid the same as men for the same work) or Title VII (prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, etc.).
All employers should review their current written employment policies to assure that any statement prohibiting wage discussions among coworkers has been removed. In addition, employers must not fire, demote, cut the wages or hours of or otherwise retaliate against an employee who discloses his/her compensation package with coworkers or others, whether shared verbally, by showing another person the pay stub or even by posting information about any worker’s pay on social media.
As an employer with at least 15 names on your payroll, you should take any claim of sexual, racial or other illegal harassment seriously and work quickly to determine the validity of the claim, to put a stop to the offending behavior, and to deal with the offender.
The necessity of quick action was confirmed in Williams-Boldware v. Denton County. In that case, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that an employer’s “prompt remedial action” stopped the offending behavior, so that the claims of racial harassment and hostile work environment were defeated.
The key word here is “prompt”. In this case, within 24 hours of a racial harassment complaint being made, the supervisor had reported the claim to Human Resources, which began investigating. The co-worker who had made racially inappropriate comments immediately issued a written apology and the employer met with the complainant to discuss the claim, letting her know they took the matter very seriously, and they even asked for her input in deciding the best course of action to take. This included reprimanding the co-worker, requiring him to attend diversity training, and transferring the complainant to another department so there would be no more contact between them.
The best way to prevent racial, sexual, or other illegal harassment from ever becoming an issue is to make sure that your employees are aware of company policies regarding harassment in the workplace. You should have a written policy in place that clearly states what behavior is expected of your employees, what is not tolerated, and what the consequences will be for violating company policy. In addition, you should take serious and immediate steps to investigate and stop the harassment when a complaint is made.
Many employers require their employees to sign and abide by the terms of some type of confidentiality agreement, confidentiality clause, or non-disclosure agreement as a condition of employment. Usually, the intent of such an agreement is to protect sensitive information and prevent such information from being discussed outside of the company. But employers should carefully consider the language and wording of confidentiality agreements to make sure they are in compliance with the standards set forth by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).
While you might think you are well within your rights to require a confidentiality agreement that prohibits an employee from discussing such things as company “financial information” or “personnel information”, the Fifth Circuit of Appeals (which decides federal appeals for cases originating in Texas) ruled in Flex Frac Logistics v. NLRB that such an agreement is unlawful. The ruling applies even to non-unionized companies like yours.
The Fifth Circuit decided that by prohibiting the employee from discussing company financial information and/or personnel information, the employer was infringing upon the employee’s right to discuss and negotiate the terms of their employment, including salary and hours. The NRLA protects activities by employees that would aid in the formation of unions, including free discussion of the employer’s pay practices.
Therefore, if you are contemplating incorporating some type of required confidentiality agreement or non-disclosure agreement into your company policies and procedures, or if you already have an existing confidentiality policy, the terms and conditions should be carefully reviewed to insure compliance with the NLRA. And keep in mind that the NLRA applies to ALL employers, regardless of whether or not the employer has union employees. Also, make sure you don’t have any other policies (written or generally understood) or employment agreements that prohibit employees from discussing wages.