Tag Archives: Sexual Harassment

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.

Sexual Harassment Prevention Training Essential

Training photo

Every employer with 15 or more employees needs to require employees to attend sexual harassment prevention training. That is the takeaway that businesses need to understand from a new task force report on harassment in the workplace that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission published in June 2016.

The EEOC’s report states that businesses have “to reboot workplace harassment prevention efforts.” The EEOC is especially concerned that most sexual harassment  prevention training focuses only on defining harassment and telling employees what they are prohibited legally from doing.

Instead, the EEOC is encouraging (read: requiring) businesses to also include workplace civility training and bystander intervention training. If a disgruntled employee makes an illegal harassment claim against your business in the future, the EEOC, as the investigating agency, is going to immediately require your business to provide evidence that you thoroughly trained your employees on these new topics. If the harassment complaint goes to trial, this training will also be your best defense.

Bystander Intervention Training is defined by the EEOC report as training that helps employees identify unwelcome and offensive behavior and creates collective responsibility to step in and take action when they see other employees exhibit problematic behaviors. The training is geared towards empowering employees to intervene when they see unacceptable conduct and gives them resources to do so.

Workplace civility training focuses on teaching employees to abide by reasonable expectations of respect and cooperation in the workplace. The emphasis is supposed to be positive—what the employees should do—rather than those things they are prohibited from doing. The training needs to include navigation of interpersonal relationships, an understanding of conflict resolution and teaching supervisors how to be civility coaches. In other words, it is now the company’s responsibility to teach workers how to be responsible, respectful professionals. On the job training and supervisor modeling is fine, but you need to add formal in-house training also.

Interestingly, at the same time that the EEOC is “encouraging” employers to promote more civility in the workplace and to prevent bullying and harassment, the National Labor Relations Board is issuing decisions that punish non-unionized businesses for written policies requiring employees to be respectful to coworkers.

The NRLB has repeatedly found that a company is infringing on an employee’s labor rights when the employer enforces handbook policies like this one from T-Mobile’s employee manual: “Employees are expected to maintain a positive work environment by communicating in a manner that is conducive to effective working relationships with clients, co-workers and management.” The NRLB thinks that kind of policy has a chilling effect on employees who have a right to discuss with coworkers all of the terms and conditions of their employment. I’ve alerted you about the NRLB’s crusade against policy manuals before.

So you as an employer are left with trying to decide whether to be investigated and sued by the NLRB or the EEOC. Continue reading Sexual Harassment Prevention Training Essential

Employer’s Prompt Actions Defeat Harassment Claim

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.