Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘demotion’

You do not have a constitutional right to be extremely sexist at work

Tuesday, August 8th, 2017

A male software engineer at Google, James Damore, wrote a 10-page memo in opposition to hiring practices that consider racial and gender diversity in tech, arguing that women were unable to do the same kind of work as their male peers. Days after it was circulated throughout the company and leaked to the press, he was fired.

Now many journalists, activists, and even politicians are arguing that he was unfairly punished for expressing his ideas, with some going so far as to say the employee was banished for “thought crimes.”

In this case, Damore’s thoughts were that women were biologically unsuited for advancement in tech in a number of ways and that women deserved their current status. In his anti-diversity screed, the software engineer decided to list personality traits that he says women have more of. Here is one:

Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance).This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.

He also wrote that women have “higher agreeableness” and “extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness,” and that this is why women tend to have a harder time negotiating salary. He does not acknowledge that research shows again and again there is a social cost for women who negotiate for higher salaries.

In addition to saying that women will always have these specific qualities that prevent them from advancing in their careers, he flat out writes, “We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism.”

He also wrote, “However, to achieve a more equal gender and race representation, Google has created several discriminatory practices.” He listed mentoring, programs, and classes “only for people with a certain gender or race.”

Men from all sides of the political spectrum weighed in to argue that he should not have been fired.

U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) tweeted out a National Review article with the headline, “Google Fires Employee Who Dared Challenge its Ideological Echo Chamber.” Julian Assange condemned the decision as “censorship.” Tim Miller, co-founder of the America Rising PAC, said Damore is being banished for “thought crimes.” Jeet Heer, senior editor at The New Republic, said the engineer should not have been fired for his ideas.

The engineer’s decision to write a 10-page memo, which he clearly spent a good deal of time writing, and then share that memo, is an action, however, not merely a thought.

In a Medium post, Yonatan Zunger, a former Google employee, explained why the memo was enough to create a hostile workplace environment and thus warranted termination.

Do you understand that at this point, I could not in good conscience assign anyone to work with you? I certainly couldn’t assign any women to deal with this, a good number of the people you might have to work with may simply punch you in the face, and even if there were a group of like-minded individuals I could put you with, nobody would be able to collaborate with them. You have just created a textbook hostile workplace environment.

Research shows that frequent and less intense but unchallenged sexist discrimination and organizational climates were similarly harmful to women’s well-being as more overt but less frequent acts of sexism, like sexual coercion. Heer suggested demotion as an alternative to firing but no matter his position, Damore would have some power over his co-workers since Google’s performance review process allows peer reviewers to give feedback on job performance. This includes employees who are junior to them.

Viewed this way, the decision to fire Damore was not censorship. It was a decision to protect women from a hostile workplace environment. Google prioritized the well-being of its workers and the company’s overall success over one man’s career.

Like most of the tech industry, Google employees are predominantly white men. In April, the Department of Labor accused the organization of “extreme” gender pay discrimination and pointed to evidence of “systemic compensation disparities.” Diversity statistics the company released last month revealed that 69 percent of its employees are male and 31 percent are female, but when it comes to technical roles, only 19 percent of the positions are held by women.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress.org on August 8, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress. She covers economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

Turning the Other Cheek: Illegal Retaliation in the Workplace

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

Piper HoffmanTurning the Other Cheek: Illegal Retaliation in the Workplace

If someone went to your employer and said you were discriminating against them, wouldn’t you hold a grudge? Wouldn’t you want to get them fired, and if you couldn’t do that, at least make their lives more difficult? Of course you would (and if you honestly wouldn’t even want to, see your parish priest about nomination for sainthood and/or enjoy nirvana). That is why there is more retaliation going on in American workplaces than there is discrimination (and there is plenty of that going on too).

It is illegal under federal law (Title VII § 704) to retaliate against an employee for complaining about workplace discrimination. That applies to everyone from the employee’s supervisor all the way up the food chain to the CEO. But people being what they are, they retaliate anyway. There are many time-honored forms of illegal retaliation, among them firing, demoting, transferring, changing work schedules, cutting bonuses, assigning lame accounts or thorny clients, and general day-to-day hassling.

In the past what was and wasn’t illegal retaliation was unclear, partly because the federal appellate courts disagreed with each other about the definition, and partly because different federal courts within each circuit (i.e. group of states) agreed with each other about how to word the rule against retaliation but disagreed about what it meant. Time was that in many circuits you could get away with retaliation if you did it outside the workplace. That left the door open for prank calls, letting air out of tires, toilet papering, and any other non-work-related harassment that was short of a misdemeanor.

In some circuits, you could transfer an employee to a distant office or put the employee on the graveyard shift, as long as what you did was not a “materially adverse change in the terms and conditions” of employment. In yet other circuits the line you couldn’t cross was the “ultimate employment decision,” meaning you couldn’t fire, cut pay, demote, or take other actions of similar severity, but anything less was okay. Then there were the circuits that said illegal retaliation encompassed anything that was likely to dissuade “a reasonable worker” from complaining about discrimination. Those circuits won when the Supreme Court resolved the whole mess a few years ago in a case called Burlington Northern v. White, which closed the door to retaliation outside the workplace.

In Burlington the employee, Sheila White, filed suit against her employer, Burlington Northern, for discrimination and retaliation. The retaliation she alleged consisted of changing her job responsibilities and suspending her for 37 days without pay, though the company later paid her for those 37 days. The Supreme Court decided that even though the change in her job responsibilities was not a demotion, and even though she ultimately received all of her pay, she had still suffered illegal retaliation. The change in job responsibilities was a change from the relatively clean job of operating a forklift to the much dirtier and more arduous tasks of cleaning up railroad rights of way and carrying heavy loads back and forth. And the 37 days she didn’t receive any pay included Christmas; there was no money for gifts in the White household that year. The Supreme Court said that a reasonable employee could easily look at what Burlington Northern did to White and decide that reporting discrimination to this employer just wasn’t worth it.

So, problem solved – everyone across the country now knows that even actions unrelated to the workplace can constitute retaliation. If only.

The problem with our courts is not judicial activism, but the opposite. I don’t know if it is a question of effort, ability, or just not giving a damn, but somehow courts managed to mess up the Supreme Court’s clear ruling when they tried to apply it in their own cases. One example is Hicks v. Baines, a case in the Second Circuit (which encompasses Connecticut, New York, and Vermont).

The issue that tripped up the Hicks court had to do with what is called the prima facie case, which just means that there is a certain minimum amount of evidence or argument that a plaintiff has to provide just to stay in court. Satisfying that minimum often doesn’t take much, but a plaintiff has to know what exactly to show in order to keep a case alive.

In Burlington Northern the Supreme Court made it crystal clear that you couldn’t sidestep the rule against retaliating by doing your retaliation outside of the workplace. Even if your retaliatory acts had nothing to do with the victim’s employment, they were still illegal as long as they would dissuade a reasonable employee from complaining about discrimination. So what does the Second Circuit in Hicks say that plaintiffs have to show to satisfy the minimal prima facie case and stay in court? An “adverse employment action.”

That’s right. According to the Second Circuit, just to keep the case alive, just to satisfy the bare minimum standard, the plaintiff has to show that the retaliation involved the employer doing something nasty that was work-related. The really jaw-dropping part is that the court laid this out in its written opinion just after a long discussion about Burlington Northern and how the Supreme Court had decided that anti-retaliation protection “extends beyond workplace-related or employment-related retaliatory acts and harm.”

Fortunately for the plaintiffs in Hicks, the retaliatory actions that they alleged were all employment-related, so the Second Circuit’s bizarre mistake did not affect the outcome of their case (for the record, they won part of it and lost part of it).

The important takeaway from Burlington: any retaliation for complaining about workplace discrimination is illegal, whether it is work-related or not, as long as it would dissuade a reasonable employee from complaining about discrimination. The important takeaway from Hicks: it’s not just judges’ political inclinations that you have to watch out for. Take a look at their GPAs too.

This article was originally published on PiperHoffman.com

About The Author: Piper Hofman is a writer and attorney living in Brooklyn with a B.A. magna cum laude from Brown University and a J.D. cum laude from Harvard Law School.  She has professional experience with the laws related to employment, animal rights, poverty, homelessness, and women’s rights.

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog