Colorado Department of Veterans’ Affairs Under Sex Harassment Scrutiny

Without proper training and strict guidelines it is easy for one bad apple to spoil the entire workplace. The old cliché fits perfectly for the situation that is going on within the Colorado Veterans’ Administration (“VA”), where a group of women have come forward with allegations that a supervising male Registered Nurse harassed them and made them feel extremely uncomfortable in the workplace. As the following paragraphs will show, this classic case of workplace misconduct checks all of the major boxes that are covered in a sex harassment training session. Don’t be the next company to fall victim to an uneducated supervisor harassing your employees; if true, this situation is bad and will only get worse when the lawsuits are filed.

A certified nursing assistant and phlebotomist named Andrea Carter worked for a staffing agency that placed her into an Aurora, Colorado outpatient clinic operated by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Carter claims she was pleased with the work, and felt the position was a good opportunity to advance her career. However, soon after beginning work a male nurse began making her feel uncomfortable. Predictably, the first incident of misconduct involved a verbal “joke” wherein the nurse asked Carter whether “she had any Irish in her,” with the punch line “would you like one?”

Incidents of verbal abuse such as the aforementioned “joke” are frequently the first scenario discussed in online sex harassment training courses. This is because stories like the Colorado VA are all too common. As the perpetrator continues to engage in verbal harassment he or she frequently proceeds to written insults and hostility, as was the case when the male nurse wrote a series of emails to Carter stating “I think you need attention . . . loud, satisfying, oral attention.”

Complicating the situation at hand (and taking a further page out of a sex harassment ‘how not to act’ PowerPoint), the nurse was known as the “office prankster,” and had a reputation for ‘harmless’ fun. Unfortunately, his behavior was actually offending and intimidating a variety of women at the clinic, all of whom he supervised.

Continuing the nurse’s predictable line of behavior, Carter alleges that he began physically harassing her by placing his crotch on her desk or rubbing against her. This behavior culminated in an incident where the nurse allegedly approached Carter from behind and began kissing her neck and asking for oral sex. Upon getting the nurse away from her Carter complained to human resources and other co-workers, many of whom told Carter they had similar encounters with this particular supervising nurse.

Alas, the quintessential sex harassment story would not be complete without subsequent retaliation for Carter’s complaint. Sure enough, after Carter and the other women complained of the nurse’s behavior Carter was offered a transfer to a position in downtown Denver, something she viewed as a downgrade in opportunity as well as geographic location. Months later, neither the nurse nor Carter work at the clinic, and the situation remains unresolved.

The aforementioned allegations are shocking, and appear to be a trip back in time to a bygone era of unchecked harassment of women by their male supervisors. Assuming Carter’s (and the other women’s’) allegations are true it is highly likely that the Colorado VA must not have engaged in any sort of training program to teach their supervisors the dangers of harassment in the workplace. If they did, they likely did not follow up with supervisors to ensure that they were well educated and well informed as to what constitutes illegal workplace harassment.

In addition to the substantial liability the Administration will incur when the lawsuits stemming from this series of incidents are undoubtedly filed, this kind of behavior is a black eye on the entire facility. Clearly there were a series of women who were harassed by this particular nurse, yet [correctly] feared retaliation if they complained. The impact on workplace productivity and morale alone is significant. By merely engaging in cost-effective online training the facility could have reduced the likelihood that this behavior occurred at all and promoted a culture where it is acceptable to report such incidents without fear of retaliation.

Syntrio understands the need to balance costs with employee morale and the need for a legally compliant work environment. Therefore, we can help train your managers on the nuances of sexual harassment that will not only keep you compliant with the law, but will foster a positive reputation within the community and within the office itself.  Contact Syntrio for more information and remember to follow us on Twitter, Google Plus and LinkedIn for daily updates on employment law and compliance that impact your business!


Maintaining Strict Adherence to Ethics and Code of Conduct Policies Should be at the Forefront of Business Priority

Ethics can be a dirty word for executives and management employees. Although all businesses like to think that they remain in compliance with a code of conduct, the term itself often connotes trouble or a sign of rough water ahead. In reality, many businesses maintain an ideal of staying at the forefront of business ethics and compliance, yet are unsure how to chart and maintain the proper course. Is it a simple code of conduct? Is it simply following the law? All of these are questions you have probably asked yourself if you are a business owner, executive, or upper-level management employee.

A recent Berkshire Hathaway memorandum from Warren Buffett explored these exact questions. Its contents bring up several salient points that can be applied to any business, large or small, that is seeking to maintain or improve its ethical reputation within the business community at large.

Buffett wrote his December 19, 2014 memorandum to his team of managers. He starts off by clearly stating that Berkshire Hathaway’s priority number 1 “trumping everything else – including profits” is “zealously guarding Berkshire’s reputation.” This is sound advice from one of the most revered businessmen in America. After all, once a business loses its reputation what does it have left? Indeed, protecting company reputations through business ethics courses is our job at Syntrio. Like Buffet, we believe that a business can flourish when it makes ethical principles of operation a high priority.

Buffett goes on to state two more key points that are fundamental aspects of ethical compliance. First, he asks that his managers refrain from doing anything that even calls into question the legality of an act. Buffett’s memo states that if a business action requires the manager to question whether it is ethical it should not be done, despite the impact on profits. While sometimes-difficult decisions need to be made, in general the “eye test” is a good one to rely on when making business decisions. All too frequently business owners and executives are seduced by the allure of high profits and the bottom line, and decisions they make lead to both legal and reputation trouble immediately.

Finally, Buffett writes about the need for trust in succession. A business owner or executive in charge must be aware of the candidates to carry on the business legacy and reputation. By properly training managers in the company code of conduct you can foster a legacy and reputation for high standards of ethics that will filter down from top to bottom. Again, this is where Syntrio can help. With years of experience training managers on adhering to ethical standards of conduct we are positioned to effectively implement a strategy that not only educates your managers on ethical behavior, we can also implement any shifts or changes in philosophy that you see fit by tailoring the courses to your needs.

Syntrio understands the need to balance costs with employee morale and ethical behavior. Therefore, we can help train your managers on the nuances of corporate ethics that will not only keep you compliant with the law, but will foster a positive reputation within the community as recommended by Warren Buffett in his memo. Contact Syntrio for more information and remember to follow us on Twitter, Google Plus and LinkedIn for daily updates on employment law and compliance that impact your business!


Parental Leave Doesn’t Have to be Scary for Employers

When an employee announces to HR that he or she will be taking FMLA leave in the near future to care for the birth or adoption of a new member of the family the first thing that goes through the minds of management is fear. Managers realize that a key employee will be missing for several weeks while the employer is left to keep his or her job open the entire time. Clearly this is a daunting proposition for companies large and small, but with proper training the entire experience can be handled without stress and with clear compliance. If done correctly, paternity or maternity leave can be an experience that rewards the employer with a motivated and thankful employee when he or she returns.

The first element of FMLA training is a background on the law. Although this article will not bore you with the complicated nuances of the statute, the basic proposition is that new parents are entitled to take up to 12 workweeks in a twelve month period to care for the birth or adoption of a newborn or newly adopted child. This is roughly three months out of the year that will need to be accounted for while the employee’s job is held open. By having a background on the fundamentals of the law, properly trained managers are able to satisfy the most important element of a successful parental leave experience: planning.

When you run a company with more than 50 employees you are bound to face a situation at some point where an employee needs to take FMLA leave. Therefore, it is wise to have a plan in place to fill the duties of each position covered by leave during the time they are gone. Although it may require the summoning of a temporary employee or a reshuffling of job responsibilities, if the plan is in place it will be executed seamlessly, and the employee will be able to take his or her leave comfortably and without worry that they are leaving the employer in a bind.

A second critical element of FMLA training is teaching management how to effectively communicate with the employee going on leave in a clear, concise, and non-discriminatory fashion. Certain things that seem natural to say can actually expose the employer to liability. Therefore, it is critical that managers know what must be communicated to the employee before and during his or her leave and what contact is prohibited. Further, effective communication increases morale and makes the pregnancy leave that much more positive an experience.

Finally, uniformity in application of policies is a key facet of FMLA training. When one employee goes out on leave and is harassed or subjected to some kind of misconduct while compliance with the law is maintained in another situation there can be significant exposure for the company. Clearly it is important to establish a policy for how things are to be handled when an employee is on leave, and the policy and its application must be carried out with uniformity.

Each of these tips will help you maintain practical compliance with the FMLA, but we highly recommend contacting Syntrio, Inc. for focused training on the FMLA and avoiding claims of pregnancy discrimination. Contact Syntrio for more information and remember to follow us on Twitter, Google Plus and LinkedIn for daily updates on employment law and compliance that impact your business!


Amazon Supreme Court Victory Highlights the Need for HR Ethics Online Courses

Last month the United States Supreme Court held that employees working at Amazon shipping facilities did not have to be compensated for time spent in post-shift security checks. Essentially, Supreme Court Justices said that extra time spent in the security checkpoints was unrelated to the employees’ job duties, and therefore was non-compensable under the Portal-to-Portal Act. The December 2014 decision is seen as a widespread victory for employers in the wage and hour war. Good news? Maybe not.

According to the opinion, employees at the Amazon facility were forced to spend approximately 25 minutes in the security checkpoints at issue. When these individuals submitted the time to the staffing company who brought them to Amazon they were not compensated. Understandably, the unpaid time sitting in a line frustrated a group of the employees, and they ultimately brought a lawsuit. Although management had success in the courtroom, lawsuits like these can cause company reputations to take a hit, and make them less attractive places for talented employees to work from top to bottom.

Granted, this case was seen as having the potential to spur billions of dollars of back pay across several companies facing similar lawsuits and is an economic victory for employers. However, it is necessary to understand how the ethics behind such policies impact employee morale and business as a whole. First, work-life balance is disrupted when employees are forced to perform duties at work “off the clock.” For example, if an employee is forced to sit 25 minutes in a security line while her family is waiting at home with dinner on the table there is going to be some understandable frustration.

Furthermore, policies that cause ethical outrage and simply “seem” wrong (despite the legality) demonstrate a management style that is untrustworthy and unethical. For example, if employees can’t trust their employer to pay them for time spent at work, how can they be sure that management is not engaged in other workplace misconduct like discrimination and harassment? All of this leads employees to be more litigious and more likely to file suspect complaints and frivolous lawsuits as a means of getting back at the employer.

When managers are properly trained in ethical practices they are far more likely to have the psychological understanding of the bases for employee complaints, and are far more likely to make and implement sound policies that consider the interests of all of the employees at the forefront, thereby keeping morale high and the risk of frivolous charges low. When you try and save money by cutting employee pay (regardless of whether you are legally “right” or not) you are very likely to end up losing in the long run.

Syntrio understands the need to balance costs with employee morale and ethical behavior. Therefore, we can help train your managers on the nuances of the law that will help formulate effective policies that keep you compliant with the law, and at the forefront of business ethics.  

Contact Syntrio for more information and remember to follow us on Twitter, Google Plus and LinkedIn for daily updates on employment law and compliance that impact your business!


Workplace Social Media in 2015 and Beyond

As 2015 begins, so ends another calendar year with technological advances. More and more people are carrying smartphones, and more and more people still are signing up for and using social media as a means of accessing the news and connecting with friends and colleagues. Businesses maintain an understandable level of concern about productivity issues. But as more millennials enter and remain in the workforce businesses are also realizing they need to balance their concerns with productivity with the amount of social media activity that is woven into the cultural fabric of employees young and old.

Recent Trends in Social Media Restriction

A 2014 study by a global law firm revealed that although nearly 90% of businesses use social media for business purposes, 80% of businesses also have policies restricting employee’s use of social media at work. Although training employees on proper use of social media has proven effective, shockingly few companies have taken this pro-active approach. However, those that have done so have seen an increase in compliance with employer policy and compliance with the law governing employer restriction on social media usage.

Although 43% of employers still block access to all social media sites (at a risk discussed below), this number has fallen by 10% over the past year, which signals a shift in management views toward social media that is consistent with increased public usage. In short, employees want to remain connected while at work but are willing to follow reasonable rules and restrictions as long as those rules do not infringe on their rights.

Laws Governing Social Media Policies

While there is no formal federal law governing an employer’s right to restrict employee access to social media either on company owned or “bring your own device” situations, any restrictions on social media use (and associated policies) must take into consideration the rights of employees to engage in concerted activities while on the job. Simply stated, employees must have unfettered ability to discuss their wages, hours, and working conditions with one another as required by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).

Although most people think of the NLRA as applying to unionized settings, in this context the law applies to all employers. This means that policies must be carefully crafted to ensure that employers are not monitoring employee social media activity and must narrowly tailor their policies around the clearly articulated legitimate business interests they are seeking to protect. In short, it is best to have a narrow policy that clearly states that employees are not restricted from engaging in concerted activity as provided by the NLRA yet should use reason with respect to maintaining productivity in the workplace.

Syntrio Can Assist with Social Media Compliance

We understand that there is a fine line between maintaining your business interests and complying with your employees’ right to engage in concerted activity. Therefore, we can help train your managers on the nuances of the law that will help formulate an effective and compliant policy. Contact Syntrio for more information and remember to follow us on Twitter, Google Plus and LinkedIn for daily updates on employment law and compliance that impact your business!