Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘James Damore’

Employees are not fully protected by the First Amendment

Monday, August 21st, 2017

Private employment is at will. The most productive or most loyal worker is subject to termination at any time. Employers are not required to show cause or pay severance. The only exception is getting fired for a discriminatory reason that violates state or federal law.

Recent developments have people wondering if they can be fired for speaking their mind or expressing political views, especially off the clock and away from work. In many cases, the answer is yes, when “free speech” activities reflect poorly on the company or violate company policy or employment agreements.

What happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas

In the wake of the protests and counterprotests in Charlottesville, Virginia, some attendees were “outed” on social media and subsequently fired by their employers. Companies quickly cut ties with employees photographed in Ku Klux Klan or Nazi regalia.

But what about carrying a Confederate flag or a tiki torch to protest removal of a statute? Or conversely, what about antifa or Black Lives Matter supporters depicted in clashes with alt-right marchers?

Courts have generally upheld the right of private employers to terminate employees for conduct in their private lives that is detrimental to the company’s goodwill, such as drunken debauchery or photo ops with hate groups.

For public employees, the standard is higher – does the private conduct compromise the ability of the employee or the agency to serve the public?

Don’t bite the hand that feeds you

Employees who badmouth their employers, especially on Facebook or Twitter, should not be surprised to get pink slips. Whistleblowers are protected from retaliation for reporting criminal activity or rights violations, but within limits.

In a recent case in Minnesota, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the firing of six Jimmy John’s employees who complained about the company’s lack of sick leave. Rather than discussing labor law, which is protected speech, they insinuated via posters and press releases that the company’s sandwiches might be tainted by workers with contagious illness.

As the fired workers were involved in a unionization effort, the National Labor Relations Board and a three-judge appeals panel ruled that the firings were essentially retaliation. The full 8th Circuit appeals court disagreed, reinforcing that employees do not have a First Amendment right to disparage their employer’s products or services.

On the other hand, some experts say James Damore may have grounds for wrongful termination after Google fired him for posting a “manifesto” about gender diversity. Despite questionable science – asserting women are biologically more “neurotic” than men – his opinion was posted on an internal forum that Google created to discuss workplace issues.

Google asserts that Damore was let go because his incendiary treatise was derogatory and discriminatory, in violation of company policy and perhaps federal law. Damore has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, saying that he acted within his rights to discuss his working environment and his employer’s discriminatory practices.

Discrimination is not a business reason

The First Amendment is a smaller shield within the context of employment. Employers have some latitude to separate from employees for objectionable speech. But terminations cannot be based on a worker’s race, national origin, gender or religion.

These cases are always dependent on legal precedent, new interpretations, enforcement priorities or recent changes in the law itself. If you believe an employer has unfairly punished or fired you for protected speech, an employment law attorney can explore your legal remedies.

This blog was originally published by Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law on August 18, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Authors: Founded in 1990 by Edward H. Passman and Joseph V. Kaplan, Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law, is focused on protecting the rights of federal employees and promoting workplace fairness.  The attorneys of Passman & Kaplan (Edward H. Passman, Joseph V. Kaplan, Adria S. Zeldin, Andrew J. Perlmutter, Johnathan P. Lloyd and Erik D. Snyder) represent federal employees before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and other federal administrative agencies, and also represent employees in U.S. District and Appeals Courts.

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.

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