Workplace Harassment & Prevention

Many thanks to our colleague in London, Julia Wilson, for co-presenting.

An influx of high profile whistleblowing cases have made headlines in recent years, and claims (and awards) are on the rise. At the same time, more defined and greater protections for whistleblowers are coming into play in the US, UK and

Employers across the US are requiring employees to return to the brick and mortar workplace as COVID cases drop, and are looking forward to having employees work together again face-to-face. But employers beware: employees have had little in-person interaction with their colleagues over the past two years, and some employees who were onboarded during the pandemic have only met their coworkers virtually. Employees returning in-person may be rusty when it comes to interacting with others in the same physical space, increasing the risk that lines will be crossed into inappropriate or unlawful behavior. What should employers do as employees return to the office to try to keep claims of discrimination and harassment to a minimum?

  1. Update the company’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies

With a focus on health and safety measures such as mask mandates and vaccine policies for the last two years, updating anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies may not have been front of mind. But employers should review and update these policies now to ensure they comply with any newer laws in the jurisdictions where they have employees-such as Illinois’ Public Act 102-0419, effective January 1, 2022, which specifies that disability discrimination in Illinois now includes discrimination against an individual because of their association with a person with a disability. Updated policies should be distributed to employees, who should be required to acknowledge in writing that they have received and understand them.

  1. Train employees that the company prohibits discrimination and harassmentand requires respect

Employers should also train employees on the company’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies-especially before employees who have been working remotely for months or years return-to increase awareness of what is and is not appropriate workplace behavior. In one study, employees who received sexual harassment training were more likely to indicate that unwanted sexual gestures, touching, and pressure for dates are sexual harassment. Awareness of what is considered unacceptable behavior can help employees think twice before acting, and training showing specific examples of discrimination and harassment-such as actors portraying behavior that could be discrimination or harassment-may help employees understand behavioral boundaries.

Employers should ensure the training covers “to the moment issues” related to discrimination and harassment that may impact the workplace. For example, on March 18, 2021, the US House of Representatives passed the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act (CROWN Act) which would prohibit discrimination based upon hairstyles in employment (as well as in public accommodations, housing, and other venues). Several states already have similar laws in place, including California, New York, Washington and Delaware. Even if the CROWN Act stalls at the federal level, training employees to respect each other-including each other’s hairstyles-can reduce complaints of discrimination.

Another example is microaggressions in the workplace. A recent Future Forum study indicated that only 3% of Black professional workers (compared with 21% of white professional workers) wanted to return to the office full time post-pandemic, after finding they faced fewer microaggressions from colleagues while working remotely. Aside from diversity and inclusion training (which many employers offer to employees), training all employees on the importance of respect in the workplace can keep all employees feeling welcome, included and valuable-whether they’re working remotely or in-person.

Employers should also ensure the training:

  • Explains the company’s structure for reporting concerns of discrimination or harassment
  • Emphasizes that the company prohibits retaliation for making reports or participating in workplace investigations of alleged harassment or discrimination
  • Describes the steps the company takes when handling complaints, and
  • Reminds employees they are subject to discipline for violation of the company’s policies relating to harassment, discrimination, or retaliation.

Some jurisdictions, including California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, New York State and New York City require employers to train employees on workplace harassment. But even if training is not required, employers should train employees before they return to the office-and regularly thereafter-to remind employees what inappropriate behavior looks like, how to report it, and the consequences for not following company policy.

Continue Reading Returning Employees to the Workplace? Consider These Tips to Minimize Discrimination and Harassment

On March 3, President Biden signed the “Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act,” H.R. 4445, into law. The landmark legislation allows a plaintiff to elect not to arbitrate covered disputes of sexual assault or sexual harassment. To understand the implications of the new law, click here.

President Biden is expected to sign into law landmark #MeToo legislation, which allows a plaintiff to elect not to arbitrate covered disputes of sexual assault or sexual harassment. The “Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act of 2021,” amends the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), by narrowing its scope and applicability. The bill’s passage had bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate.

Historically, some employers have implemented arbitration programs that require both the employer and its employees to arbitrate most or all types of employment claims, including claims alleging sexual harassment or sexual assault. Largely in response to the #MeToo movement, which began in late 2017, some states passed laws designed to prohibit or restrict employers from requiring employees to arbitrate sexual harassment or sexual assault claims. For example, in New York, employers are prohibited from requiring the arbitration of sexual harassment claims except where inconsistent with federal law. New York’s prohibition on mandatory arbitration in relation to sexual harassment claims went into effect on July 11, 2018, and it has applied to contracts entered into on or after that date. New Jersey and California have enacted similar laws. New Jersey’s law prohibits any provision of an arbitration agreement that waives a substantive or procedural right or remedy relating to employment discrimination, harassment, and retaliation claims. This law applies to all contracts and agreements entered into, renewed, modified, or amended on or after March 18, 2019. Further, on October 10, 2019, California enacted a law, which prohibits employers from requiring employees to sign new mandatory arbitration agreements concerning disputes arising under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) or California Labor Code.  California’s law applies only to agreements dated January 1, 2020 or after. However, courts have found these statutes to be pre-empted by the FAA.

On February 7, 2022, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed H.R. 4445, 335 to 97. Shortly thereafter, on February 10, 2022, the bill passed the Senate in an unrecorded voice vote.

Continue Reading Landmark #MeToo Legislation Allows Employees To Pursue Sexual Harassment & Assault Claims In Court, Rather Than Arbitration

We identified and mapped out our most relevant blog posts, articles and video chats to serve as a quick and handy roadmap to recovery and renewal for your company.

Our 2022 Employment & Compensation Resource Navigator provides US multinational companies organized links to Baker McKenzie’s most helpful, relevant thought leadership in one brief document. Arranged

A proposed bill in California seeks to protect workers against nondisclosure agreements and empower them to speak out about alleged acts of discrimination, including racism. Senate Bill 331, known as the Silenced No More Act, was introduced in February 2021 and seeks to expand protections against confidential settlements to cover all forms of harassment or discrimination under California law, including on the basis of race, ancestry, religion or gender identity. If passed, the law will impose greater restrictions on companies’ freedom to contract settlement and non-disparagement agreements.

New Obligations if SB 331 Passes

  1. SB 331 will expand the existing prohibition of provisions that prohibit discussing sexual harassment in the workplace to discussing any type of harassment (i.e., race, age, religious harassment). (See discussion of SB 820 below.)
  2. The law will prohibit non-disparagement agreements that prohibit the disclosure of information about unlawful acts in the workplace.
  3. The law also will create new obligations, such as the requirement to notify the employee that the employee has a right to consult an attorney regarding the agreement and giving the employee “a reasonable time period of not less than five business days” in which to do so.

Several Employer-Friendly Changes to Observe

  1. The law clarifies that including a general release or waiver of all claims in an agreement related to an employee’s separation from employment does not violate the statute.
  2. It verifies that the law does not prohibit a provision that precludes the disclosure of the amount paid in settlement of a claim.
  3. It confirms that employers may protect trade secrets, proprietary information, or confidential information that does not involve unlawful acts in the workplace.


Continue Reading #MeToo 2.0: New California Bill Proposes Greater Restrictions on Confidentiality and Non-Disparagement Agreements

We recently published an update to our 50-state Shelter-In-Place / Reopening Tracker.

Please see HERE. This is updated weekly.

For your convenience, here is a summary of the major updates from around the country:

  • The following jurisdictions extended their state-wide orders and/or the duration of the current phase of their reopening plans: Delaware, Maryland

Special thanks to guest contributor Aleesha Fowler.

Baker McKenzie’s Labor and Employment and Compliance and Investigations lawyers discuss the key considerations organizations encounter when faced with high profile sexual harassment and misconduct allegations and subsequent investigations involving powerful authoritative figures, executives and celebrities.

Click here to watch the video.

 

We recently published an update to our 50-state Shelter-In-Place / Reopening Tracker.

Please see HERE. This is updated weekly.

For your convenience, here is a summary of the major updates from around the country:

  • The following states extended their state-wide orders and/or the duration of the current phase of their reopening plans: Connecticut,

America’s political divisions seem to be deepening. And, what’s troubling for employers is that our polarized political climate appears to be affecting employee productivity significantly, according to research by Gartner. According to a nationwide survey in February, 47% of employees reported that debate surrounding the 2020 elections is impacting their ability to get work done.