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

 

 

 

Lies, Damn Lies and (EEOC) Statistics

th[6]

“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 

 

Better Call Saul

“You were smart to call me. Now you just sit back, relax and let a professional take over.”             Saul Goodman – Breaking Bad

Saul Goodman, the street smart, delightfully sleazy criminal defense attorney from the ground breaking television drama, Breaking Bad, had a simple but memorable marketing slogan to attract clients – “Better Call Saul.”  Unfortunately for most of his clients (but good for Saul), they only called after they had gotten into trouble with the law.  It then became all about damage control.

But one client, Walter White, the cancer stricken high school science teacher turned virtuoso meth lab cook, often did call and consult with Saul before he took certain actions that he knew could potentially result in serious legal consequences.  Perhaps it stemmed from his scientific background, but Walter would often discuss options with their potential outcomes and associated legal risks with Saul before ultimately settling on a course of action.

Human resources managers would be well served to follow Mr. White’s lead in one limited respect.  (NO, I repeat, NO, not cook meth nor plan criminal acts).   Companies can reduce the possibility of significant monetary damages and legal expenses from employment law claims by investing a little time and money in consulting with their legal counsel about difficult employment situations before litigation is commenced. Below are just a few of scenarios where the “call to Saul” (or whoever your employment lawyer is) should be made:

  • An Employee (Or His Attorney) Makes A Personnel File Request.  The employee is not asking for her personnel file to check for spelling errors, or to make sure her emergency contact information has been updated.  The employee wants ammo, or better yet, the actual “smoking gun.”  The request is the legal equivalent of a warning shot across the bow.  An employment attorney can advise on how to respond to the request, including what not to provide, as well as establishing parameters to ensure the preservation of files and emails for future litigation.
  • The Employer Wants To Terminate An Employee Who Falls Into One Or More Protected Classifications.  As there are almost 100,000 discrimination charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) every year, a company who wishes to terminate an employee who falls into a “protected classification” such as age, race, gender or disability faces potential liability.  As literally every employee falls into some protected classification, the company should make sure that it has all of its legal ducks in a row before termination.  Talk through the facts, evidence and reasons for the termination with employment counsel, paying special attention to how the company has disciplined similarly situated employees not in the same protected classification(s).
  • The Employee Mentions The “L Word”.  Frequently employees claim that they are contacting a “lawyer,” or intend to file a “lawsuit.”  Although many times this is simply bluster, sometimes they actually follow through.  Regardless, the simple mention of these words greatly increases the likelihood of the employee filing a retaliation claim in the event the company takes an adverse employment action against him.  Any discipline or discharge that comes shortly after utterance of an “L word” will likely trigger the filing of a retaliation claim.  Bottom line – when an employee starts talking about his lawyer, you should probably call yours.
  • The Government Comes Knocking.  If you receive a letter, phone call or surprise visit from a government investigator representing OSHA, the Department of Labor, the EEOC, or OFCCP, contact your employment lawyer immediately.  Often, steps can be taken to narrow down the government’s burdensome requests for information, and secure adequate time to gather relevant information in order to prepare a coherent response.

Just like an ounce of prevention can be worth a pound of cure, a billable hour spent on one of the tricky employment situations described above could avoid potentially costly legal consequences.  Take a page out of Walter White’s (cook)book and make the call.

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

Downton Abbey & The Employment Reference

“Downton Abbey” is currently a very popular PBS television show.  It’s set on an English country estate around 1920, and focuses on the owners and the numerous “servants” that work at a large Edwardian Mansion.  Everyone has antiquated titles reflecting their social status, like “Dowager Countess,” “footman,” or “valet.”

Like any workplace, there is always drama.  Servants jockey for promotions and, in the process, often sabotage the work efforts of others.  Given the high standards expected of the servants, some poor soul always seems to be on the verge of losing his or her job for the slightest offense.

As a management-side employment law attorney, I often watch television workplace dramas with one eye out for any legal or human resources (“HR”) implications. (I know, I know, what a nerd!). Although I have only seen a few episodes, it appears to me that the servants on Downton Abbey spend an inordinate amount of time worried about whether they will receive a positive employment “reference” from Lord Grantham or Lady Crawley.  Some downright beg for one, and ominously lament that without it, they may never be able to work again.

How times have changed.  In my experience, many employees nowadays could care less about whether they receive a good reference or not.  Burning bridges is commonplace. Many employees don’t ask for employment references.  Likewise, many employers don’t give references for fear of being sued for defamation and/or retaliation, or give a bare bones “non-reference.” Prospective employers are often forced to “read between the lines,” or, worse yet, attempt to divine the meaning of the “tone” of the former employer during a brief phone call.

Regardless, a positive employment reference can still be valuable to employees and employers.  Accordingly, any employer who wants to provide more than a “name/rank/serial number” reference (perhaps in the hopes of someday getting a more detailed one in return from another employer) should consider the following admonitions:

First, an employer should only give a “good reference” to a “good employee.”  An employer that gives a favorable reference to a marginal or bad employee will very likely see that reference become Exhibit 1 in a subsequent lawsuit against it.  The employee (reasonably) thinks:  “Why was I terminated when they gave me such a glowing letter of reference?  It must be that the company discriminated against me because I am a _____.”  Giving a positive reference to an undeserving (ex)employee simply results in a “good deed getting punished.”

Second, any employer that is considering giving a positive reference should try to get something in return.  In exchange for a positive reference, obtain a signed release under which the employee waives all potential claims against the company related to his/her employment, including the provision (and contents) of the reference.

Third, control who has the authority to provide references for the company.  If possible, designate one person responsible for providing any references.  Often times this is the Human Resources Manager.  Do not let lower level supervisors or forepersons give employment references.  The reference needs to be accurate, truthful and concise.  Having an experienced professional who is careful with his or her words will ensure this.

 

Sweat the Little HR Details

Unfortunately, it is a common occurrence for employees and ex-employees to file lawsuits and other claims against their employers.  In 2012 there were over 100,000 discrimination and retaliation charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alone.  There were also thousands of claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)  and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and innumerable wrongful termination claims, breach of employment agreement claims, grievance arbitrations, and non-competition disputes.

Given this potential exposure, it is critical that a Human Resources Manager “sweat the details” so that if an action if filed against his or her company, the company is in a better position to defend against and (hopefully) defeat it.

One little detail that I frequently see overlooked by company officials involves termination letters.  It is not enough to prepare a termination letter and give it to the employee.  It is critical that the company keep a signed and dated copy of the termination letter on company letterhead in the employee’s personnel file.  

Failure to do so creates numerous evidentiary problems.  First, the employee may claim the company never gave him a termination letter, and challenge the reasons the company now asserts were the basis for his termination.  Second, unless prior steps are taken, printing off an unsigned “draft” from the electronic files often automatically changes the date on the letter, creating further confusion regarding when the termination occurred.  Third, the person who originally signed the letter may not be employed still, making it difficult to prove what was communicated to the employee at the time of termination, and by whom.

To avoid creating these unnecessary evidentiary issues, take the extra couple minutes to make a copy of the signed, dated termination letter, and put it in the employee’s personnel file.

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

HR Tip – Save Those Voicemails

Probably every Human Resources Manager has received a voicemail from an employee advising them he is “quitting.”  Sometimes the employee even “thanks” the HR Manager and/or the company for the “opportunity,” and does not say anything negative about his employment experience.

I strongly recommend saving such voicemails from any employee the company suspects is a “litigation risk” (in their original audio format) for at least a year, and preferably two.

Why save them?  Employees often conveniently change their “stories” or recollections after quitting.  Such voicemails present compelling evidence to defeat an employee’s later claim that he was “fired” or “forced to quit”  (aka “constructive discharge”).  They are particularly useful in knocking down unemployment compensation claims and previously unreported claims of harassment.   The employee is left to “explain away” his own statements, and will not appear credible in doing so.

Why save them that long?  Under most federal and state laws, claims for discrimination, harassment and retaliation generally have to be asserted within 300 days of the alleged adverse employment action.  Retaining the voicemail for at least a year will ensure you have it available if a claim is filed.  Keeping them two years is preferable because claims under the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) can be asserted 2 (or even 3) years later.

Bottom line:  don’t hit the “delete” button, and you may “save” 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

Fight Club’s First Rule of HR – You DO NOT Talk About Your Lawyer

Remember the classic scene in the movie Fight Club?  Brad Pitt, founder of the “Club,” is talking to prospective pugilists about its rules.  He boldly declares the First Rule of Fight Club: “you do not talk about Fight Club.”  He then gives the Second Rule: “you DO NOT talk about Fight Club.”  Needless to say, everyone got the point – keep your mouth shut to avoid trouble.

In homage to Fight Club’s simple genius, I offer a modified version of this Rule for Human Resource Managers:

YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT YOUR LAWYER.

You see, part of my job as a management side employment lawyer is preventative in nature:  I  consult with companies before they make a termination decision.  I do so in order to help them (hopefully) avoid lawsuits, and to put them in the best position to defeat any litigation that ensues.  Among other things, the client and I discuss the rationale(s) for the termination decision, the performance history of the employee, the existence (or lack thereof) of supporting documentation, whether the company is following its own disciplinary policies and/or practices, and the legal risks involved if the employee falls into a “protected” classification under discrimination laws.

These attorney-client discussions are treated under the law as “confidential” – they are protected from involuntary disclosure by the “attorney-client privilege.”  I cannot ethically disclose them.  Likewise, the company representative I am talking with cannot generally be forced to reveal them at deposition, in an interrogatory answer, or at trial.  This protection is critical, as it allows the client and I to engage in candid discussions of sensitive issues, without the fear of later disclosure.

Unfortunately, HR managers often violate my modified Rule. They say things like “we checked with our lawyer and he told us ….,” or “we will talk with our lawyer and get back to you”  in termination or disciplinary meetings with employees, or when discussing “reasonable accommodations” with them. To a degree it is understandable, as part of the normal  “give and take” of a conversation with an employee.

Moreover, on their face such remarks seem harmless.  But in reality, they are subtly dangerous.  Why? First and foremost, the client may have just waived the attorney-client privilege.  Remember, the privilege is for the client’s benefit.  But it can also be waived by the client. Any statement that references the content of a client’s prior conversation with their lawyer will likely be construed (or at least argued) as a “waiver” of the privilege.

If waived, the employee’s lawyer could ask the client probing questions about the details of that conversation, including all statements made before the decision to discipline, discharge or not accommodate.  This could result in the disclosure of comments that, even if not acted upon by the client, will be presented as evidence of a discriminatory or retaliatory intent, and/or at least an awareness of the potential for litigation.  Such statements will be trumpeted as “smoking guns” for the company’s “real” motivation behind its decision.

Second, such comments often “raise a flag” in an employee’s mind.  The employee thinks his situation has become “serious” –  for goodness sake, the company just told him/her that its lawyer has become involved!   With this knowledge, the employee usually does one of a couple of things: (a) he becomes very sensitive and files a “retaliation” claim for any adverse employment action taken against him, believing it was caused by his raising of a “legal” issue; or (b) goes out an immediately retains his own lawyer to advocate on his behalf; or (c) both.

None of these outcomes are positive for the company.  So apply the First Rule of HR:

YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT YOUR LAWYER

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