A Quick HR Limerick

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In honor of St. Patrick’s Day (and being 1/4th Irish),  I offer this limerick as a cautionary tale to all human resources professionals dealing with litigious employees and bad bosses:

There once was an employee named Jill
Her job left her feeling quite ill
Her touchy boss wouldn’t stop
Brushing against her top
So she called HR Manager Bill

Old Bill hailed from the heartland
Fond of PBR and polka bands
Sloppily investigated Jill’s claims
Assigned the boss no blame
Jill quit and made legal demands

Still other employees complained
Of discrimination, harassment and pain
About poor communication
And denials of vacation
But, alas, the reports were in vain

For the boss was a tough taskmaster
His people skills a disaster
Get the damn work done
It’s not a charity that he runs
Nor was it his job to flatter

Then came an employee named Jake
Not enough money did he make
He and a hundred others sued
Seeking overtime wages due
His lawyer bought a mansion on a lake

Though HR’s plate was already full
Lawsuits and claims took their toll
Job duties pushed aside
To fight the legal tide
Company morale sunk exceedingly low

A dark knight heard the discontent
Swaggered in, spewed promises, and went
Employees sniffed the hot air
Were enchanted by the aroma of fair
And unionized the establishment

Then, despite trying his best
Bill was often second-guessed
Monday morning quarterbacks
Made him slow to react
So Bill retired and moved southwest

 

 

 

 

Death, Taxes & Crazy Lawsuits

thCAPBLV9ZBenjamin Franklin once observed: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”   If Ben were alive today, he would probably add a third certainty to his list – the filing of ridiculous lawsuits.  Here are just a couple recent doozies:

Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner – A retiree in New York has sued Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) for $20 million, claiming KFC falsely and misleadingly advertised its $20 “Fill Up” bucket as overflowing with chicken. Miffed when she discovered that her bucket was only half full, the plucky senior apparently decided she’d had enough of “not enough” and sued. Perhaps blinded by hunger, plaintiff failed to notice the menu’s clear directive that the bucket only contained eight pieces (which it did).   But with $20 million on the line, you can bet your last drumstick that the feathers are going to fly in court.

Hand it Over and No One Gets HurtA 76 year old Florida lawyer is suing a 60 year old lawyer for injuries he claims he sustained from a negligent handshake at a kid’s birthday party.  You read that right.  The ailing attorney contends the defendant squeezed his hand with such force that it caused severe pain, requiring treatment by medical specialists.  In an admirable homage to Attorney Jackie Chiles of Seinfeld fame, the lawsuit alleges the handshake was  “unexpected, unprovoked, uninvited, unauthorized, uncalled for, and most certainly negligent.”  Somehow they left out “unforgiveable” and “unbecoming.”  Naturally, as a “triple threat” (plaintiff, lawyer and Floridian) the plaintiff is seeking $100,000 or, as he advised the local press, “as much as [he] can get” for past and future pain and suffering.  Stay tuned to see if the jury high fives him or slaps his wrist.

As I sometimes remind my employer clients dealing with challenging personnel issues,  “it’s all fun and games until someone gets sued.”  It takes only one disgruntled employee to “air grievances” (another hat tip to Seinfeld) and cause major financial and emotional stress.

Thus, employers would be wise to heed Ben Franklin’s other sage advice that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and periodically review their employment practices, policies and work environments in order to avoid becoming the next litigation target.

 

 

 

 

 

Justice is Blind? Fired Blind Barber Awarded $100,000 for Disability Discrimination

 

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“Beware of the young doctor and the old barber” – Ben Franklin

Although common sense may have been on his side at the time, if Ben Franklin voiced his sentiment in the workplace now, he would likely face and lose an age discrimination case.

Case in point – a legally blind barber sued his former barber shop claiming it terminated him because of his disability after he had tripped over a customer’s legs and tripped over a chair in the waiting room (all in the same day).  The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination awarded the “blind barber” (as his loyal customers called him) $100,000 in damages.

The case has many lessons for employers:

Don’t assume you will win every lawsuit.   There are no “slam dunk” legal cases.  You need to show up and put on a solid defense.  Here, the employer hurt his cause by not attending several hearings.

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The facts, not just “common sense,” matter.  Sometimes the law doesn’t seem to comport with common sense.  One would think eliminating the risk of having a customer’s ear cut off  (much less a horrible haircut) would be a legitimate reason to terminate.  Would you want this?

 

BUT the barber had passed his state board exam, worked for a year without incident, and had customers who knew he was legally blind and didn’t care.  Those facts mattered more than the “common sense” fear of a blind person wielding sharp objects.

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Don’t play doctor.  An employer dealing with an employee with a disability should not presume or make assumptions about the effects of a person’s disability on their ability to do the job.  Here, the employer’s defense would have been greatly bolstered if it had obtained a fitness for duty exam by a qualified medical professional that determined the employee could not safely perform his duties and there was no accommodation that would enable him to do so.

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Timing  and optics are critical.  The employer purportedly did not know until the “day of great tripping” that the barber  was visually impaired.  It then immediately fired the employee, claiming (after the fact) that the employee “had not been pulling his weight.”  The “optics” simply do not look good (pun intended).

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Get your ducks in a row.  An employer seeking to terminate the employment of an individual in a protected classification should, if at all possible, issue written progressive discipline beforehand.  Apparently there were no prior written warnings in this case.  As the employer had never previously fired another non-disabled barber for simply tripping over a chair or a customer’s legs, the whiff of discrimination in the blow dried (h)air was strong.

 

Four Recent HR & Employment Law Developments

As those working in human resources and my fellow employment lawyers can attest, the last few years have given us constant change.  New employment laws, new labor regulations, federal agencies aggressively enforcing both, and significant cases being issued almost daily make it tough for even the most seasoned “HR Genius” to keep on top of all of the developments.  I try to lighten the load through this Blog, but like you, only have so many hours in the day.

So,  this week I am going to lean on my management-side employment law colleagues at Michael Best & Friedrich.  Below are just a sampling of the recent articles and “client alerts” they have authored recently:

1.  Wisconsin just enacted its “Right-To-Work” Law.  What does this mean for employers in Wisconsin? Click here.

2.  The Department of Labor just issued its Final Rule revising and expanding the definition of “spouse” to include those from same sex marriages.  For more details, click here.

3.  Utah just enacted a new law prohibiting discrimination against employees on the basis of their sexual orientation and “gender identity.”  If you have operations there, then you should  click here.

4.  Do you know what constitutes a valid employment claim “release,” and when you can lawfully “require” employees to sign them?  For this information and more, click here.

Hopefully you will find these helpful in your quest to becoming (or remaining) an “HR Genius.”

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
Twitter: @HRGeniusBar
@wagelaws

 

 

 

Employees Behaving Badly – The Social Media Edition

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“Privacy is dead, and social media hold the smoking gun” – Pete Cashmore, CEO of Mashable   

It seems like every week there is another story gone “viral”  of an employee posting something colossally stupid or offensive on a social media site, getting fired, and the employer left scrambling to repair its damaged reputation.  Here are just a few of the recent gems:

1.  ESPN suspended outspoken anchor Keith Olbermann for engaging in a heated twitter debate with Penn State University (“PSU”) students.  After a PSU alum brought to his attention an annual fundraiser at PSU that raised $13 million for pediatric cancer, Olbermann tweeted “PSU students are pitiful  because they’re  PSU students – period,” and called another student a “moron.”  Olbermann later apologized (via Twitter of course), calling his comments “stupid and childish.”

2.  A school bus driver thought it was a good idea to take a “selfie” holding a full bottle of beer to her lips as she sat behind the driver’s wheel, and then post it on Facebook.  Nothing says “student safety” like a brewski and a 15,000 pound vehicle, right?  The school district promptly fired the driver  after concerned parents rightfully went ballistic.  Fun Fact:  the driver never actually opened the bottle.

3. A Texas teenager fired off an expletive filled tweet complaining about starting her new job at a local pizza joint the next day, complete with a string of “thumbs-down” emoji characters:

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The boss saw it and tweeted back: “no… you don’t start the ** job today! I just fired you! Good luck with your no money, no job life.” Not to be outdone in this social media throwdown, the boss added some crying emoji faces. Not surprisingly, his corporate ownership was none too happy with the public airing of the dispute (think angry emoji faces).

So how can employers reduce their legal and reputational risks from their employees’ social media abuses?  For starters:

1. Adopt and enforce a clear social media policy. (Easier said than done given the NLRB’s views on the subject).

2. Train employees to think twice before tweeting, posting or sharing. And then think a third time.

3.  Train employees to ask themselves:  is this tweet/post/share something that I would say or do in front of my boss, my spouse, my parents, or my kids?  If not, don’t tweet/post/share it.

4.  Train employees to further ask themselves: is this tweet/post/share something that I am comfortable explaining and/or defending to the individuals mentioned above, or to a judge,  jury, or the mainstream media? If not, don’t tweet/post/share it.

 5.  Train employees to remember that although “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” what happens on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram will stay on the internet forever.  Or, as they used to say,  “this will go on your permanent record.”

6.   Bottom line –  Everyone (from the CEO to the rank-and-file worker) should recognize “you are what you tweet,” and that all must choose their words, videos, pictures, and yes, emojis, carefully.

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
 Twitter: @HRGeniusBar
 @wagelaws

 

 

Lies, Damn Lies and (EEOC) Statistics

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“98% of all statistics are made up”  ~Author Unknown

On February 4, 2015, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) released its Fiscal Year 2014 Enforcement and Litigation Data”  report (“EEOC Report”).  The EEOC Report, chock full of statistics regarding employment discrimination charges brought against employers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and other Federal statutes, is a statistician’s dream.

As Mark Twain reportedly said, however, “facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.”   Perhaps not surprisingly then, the EEOC Report can be interpreted to contain good and bad news for employers:

Good news:  The total number of discrimination charges filed against employers actually fell almost 5% in fiscal 2014 from the year prior.
Bad news:     There were still 88,778 EEOC discrimination charges filed against employers in 2014. (This does not count state and local charges).

Good news:  In 2014 the EEOC dismissed 65.6% of the discrimination charges during the investigation stage.
Bad news:     In 2014 the EEOC recovered over $318 million from employers through its enforcement, settlement and litigation efforts. 

Good news:   In 2014 age discrimination charges dropped almost 20% from their peak in 2008.
Bad news:     Retaliation claims reached an all time high, comprising nearly 43% of all discrimination charges.

Good news:  The EEOC files suit in less than 8 percent of the cases where it believes discrimination occurred and no settlement is reached.
Bad news:     The EEOC filed 133 “merits” lawsuits across the country, and claims a 90% success rate at resolving matters in district court.

Hopefully 2015 will only bring your company good news.  Decrease the possibility of bad news by adopting some human resources “best practices”  found here and here.

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
 Twitter: @HRGeniusBar
 @wagelaws 

 

Two More HR Mistakes To Avoid

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Having just touched the tip of the HR iceberg in my recent post  “Avoid these 3 Common HR Mistakes,” let’s dive a little deeper. Below are two more common mistakes made by companies and their human resources professionals:

Mistake #4: Failing to preserve key evidence.  Every terminated employee poses the risk of future litigation. Consequently, take steps to preserve crucial evidence. To the extent possible, save all employee voice mails that involve statements of: (1) quitting; (2) insubordination; (3) threats of violence; (4) profanity; and (5) excuses for absences unrelated to any disability (if you terminated the employee for absenteeism). Similarly, print and save screen shots of employees’ texts and social media postings, particularly if the contents reveal employee misconduct. Finally, always keep a signed and dated copy of the termination letter, and save the employee’s personnel file for at least 3 years.

Mistake #5: Failing to keep quiet. When it comes to discussing employment terminations, the less said the better. Never talk with a lawyer representing an employee. Generally, anything you say is evidence that will be used against you. For the same reason, don’t talk to an employee’s family member about their situation – he/she is not the employee. Don’t talk with anyone from a government agency unless your lawyer is present. Don’t tell individuals who do not have a “need to know” why an employee was terminated; if you can’t later prove the reason(s) for the termination you may face a defamation claim. Finally, be careful what you write in emails. Do not: (1) refer to an employee’s protected characteristics (such as race, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, etc.); (2) refer to an employee’s threat of a lawsuit; or (3) call the employee derogatory names (including “troublemaker”). Emails can and will be discovered in the course of litigation, and can be highly damaging to your case.*

Navigate around these legal icebergs in order to avoid sinking your case.

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
Twitter: @HRGeniusBar
 @wagelaws

* Portions of this article first appeared in the Wisconsin Institute of CPAs’ October, 2014 magazine, The Bottom Line.