More Episodes of Clueless in Silicon Valley:  What does the reaction say about us?

More Episodes of Clueless in Silicon Valley:  What does the reaction say about us?

By Supreeta Sampath

The spotlight shined again this month on employer cluelessness in Silicon Valley, first with Microsoft’s new CEO telling women they’re better off waiting for karma than pushing for raises and then with the news that one multi-million dollar tech company was paying workers in Rupees.

Early this month came the disturbing comment about women and pay raises by Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, speaking (ironically) at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference.  Nadella’s mind-boggling advice to young women seeking advice on how to ask for a raise was to keep quiet – “knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raises as you go along.”  He further opined that it’s “good karma” not to ask for a raise.  Immediately after the talk, Nadella recanted in a tweet –

Nadella tweet

That same day he issued a letter of apology to Microsoft workers telling them if they think they deserve a raise, just ask.

Then last week, EFI, a publicly-traded digital technology company was caught by the U.S. Department of Labor paying eight employees in Rupees.  That’s right, Rupees, the currency of India.  Apparently, the Fremont-based multi-million-dollar company believed that because it had flown the Indian employees from India to California for a project, it was allowed to pay the employees in Rupees, at a rate equivalent to $1.21 per hour and make them work 120 hours per week.  The consequence for this travesty?  Other than paying $40,000 in wages owed, EFI was fined a mere $3,500 by the DOL. What was the company’s response?  Let’s just say there were no apologies, simply feigned ignorance of the law.

The reaction to these events reveals a ‘sign of the times’ and the power of media to focus (or not) on work place equality.

The public and media decry of Nadella’s comments are ubiquitous.  If one types in any combination of “Nadella”, “Pay” and “Women” into any search engine, the results are prolific. Ranging from tweets of dismay and disgust, to thoughtful editorial pieces criticizing Nadella in major news magazines, the country passionately leaped into its discussion about gender equality in the work place. Perhaps most notable is the equal abundance of pieces (including in the New York Times) spinning Nadella’s blunder into a positive and needed opportunity to continue discussions about the gender divide.

In stark contrast to the national reaction over the Nadella debacle, you will be hard pressed to find any significant media coverage over EFI’s unlawful conduct.  Media attention was short-lived and confined to local stations.  I found only one article condemning the behavior and guffawing at the paltry DOL fine.  So where are the bloggers, tweeters and national media commentators decrying wage theft and worker exploitation?  Why is there a lack of any meaningful response expressing shame and disgust over this blatant example of corporate greed? And has anyone asked whether EFI would have paid British workers in Pounds (with a $1.61 exchange rate) if they had been slogging away in California for the company?  Why is no one furious that a company reporting close to $200 million in revenue in its last financial quarter got away with a $3500 fine?

Perhaps with recent political victories like the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and Cheryl Sanberg exhorting women to “Lean In” – it is more socially acceptable and sexy to debate the merits of fair pay and gender equality in the work place than to focus on the unrelenting reality of labor exploitation.  Perhaps Microsoft is cleverer and has a better Communications Department assisting in rehabilitating Nadella and Microsoft’s reputation through widespread “positive spin” pieces?  Perhaps it is all of this.

Don’t get me wrong, as a woman and a workers’ rights advocate, I am thrilled that Nadella’s comments have put needed attention on pay and gender equality in the workplace.  But as a woman and worker’s rights advocate, it’s clear to me that the bigger lesson can be learned from the different ways these two employer “mishaps” have been reported by the media and digested by the masses.

Minimum wage, wage theft and worker exploitation may not be as alluring as gender equality in the year 2014, but they are equally vital to our national economy and collective moral conscience.

 

Supreeta Sampath

About Supreeta Sampath

Supreeta Sampath is the founder of The Sampath Law Firm located in San Francisco, California. For over a decade, her legal career has been dedicated to serving the needs of those who have been denied justice. Ms. Sampath has extensive experience representing workers in employment discrimination cases on account of race, national origin, religion, gender, disability, age, sexual harassment, retaliation as well as cases involving labor code violations. From 2011-2014 she has been named a Rising Star in the field of Labor and Employment by Super Lawyers Magazine.

U.S. lags behind western democracies in enacting anti-workplace bullying laws despite growing problem 2

U.S. lags behind western democracies in enacting anti-workplace bullying laws despite growing problem

dreamstime_xs_29765084By Supreeta Sampath

According to the National Bullying Institute, one-third of Americans are bullied at work, and workplace bullying is on the rise.  Recently the issue of bullying made national headlines when Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin, accused lineman Richie Incognito of physical and verbal abusive behavior.  The absence of state or federal legislation to address this troubling trend sends bullies the message that they can get away with such behavior as yelling, screaming, humiliating, and sabotaging an employee’s career.  The legal void also signals to employers that they can turn a blind eye to bullying without fear of legal repercussions.

Compared to other western democracies, including Britain, Canada, France and Australia (which have all enacted anti-bullying legislation) the United States is in the dark ages on this important mental health issue.  But at the state level, there are signs that this may be changing.

Suffolk University Law Professor David Yamada has drafted model anti-bullying legislation, known as The Healthy Workplace Bill.  The Healthy Workplace Campaign defines workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment” that involves verbal abuse, offensive conduct that is threatening, humiliating, intimidating or work sabotage.

Since 2003, anti-bullying legislation has been introduced in 25 states (including California). While none has been enacted into law, there are currently 11 states that have bills under active consideration.

This kind of legislation will undoubtedly ignite the business lobby with their well-worn opposition arguments.  Employer groups will continue to argue that anti-bullying legislation will open up the floodgates of litigation and clog our already overburdened courts because “overly sensitive” employees will run to file a lawsuit every time they have a bad day at work.

But this focus on the frivolous is a straw argument that trivializes the real cost of bullying to workers and businesses alike.  The concern about legislating workplace civility can be addressed by careful drafting.  Rather than fighting workplace bullying laws, employer lobby groups should put their energies into crafting a law that will prohibit abusive or humiliating treatment that no decent employer would sanction, while leaving supervisors free to constructively manage and discipline employees.

It would be nice if internal policies and company grievance procedures had put an end to the harm of workplace bullying.  But that has not happened.  What we know from past experience is that sometimes it takes a change in law to change behavior.

Before the passage of laws like Title VII and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, it was legally permissible to harass and discriminate against employees on the basis of their race, color, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, and other now protected categories.  Once these laws were in place, U.S. companies began holding their managers and employees accountable to  eliminate discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace.

The good news is that, according to a survey by one human resources professional organization, 56% of U.S. companies already have some sort of anti-bullying policy.  Drawing on models from employers themselves, we should be able to frame a law that would eliminate frivolous claims by definition by requiring claimants to show not only of out-of-bounds conduct, but also documented harm.  While there may be some who still try to file unworthy suits, careful crafting of legislation will ensure that their suits are tossed out.  But throwing the baby away with the bath water is not the solution to a growing national problem.  It’s time for California and other states in the union to get serious about enacting anti-workplace bullying legislation.

Supreeta Sampath

About Supreeta Sampath

Supreeta Sampath is the founder of The Sampath Law Firm located in San Francisco, California. For over a decade, her legal career has been dedicated to serving the needs of those who have been denied justice. Ms. Sampath has extensive experience representing workers in employment discrimination cases on account of race, national origin, religion, gender, disability, age, sexual harassment, retaliation as well as cases involving labor code violations. From 2011-2014 she has been named a Rising Star in the field of Labor and Employment by Super Lawyers Magazine.

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