"Mind-Numbing Lawyer Gobbledygook" Overrated?

An article in Thursday's Los Angeles Times discusses their own parent company, Tribune Co.'s new employee handbook that was introduced by their CEO, Sam Zell, via a recent e-mail to employees.

This caught my eye because it is not every day that a company publicly releases or discusses their employee handbook. In fact, many handbooks actually state that its pages are the employer's property and must be returned at the end of employment.

The (Bad) Idea

According to Zell, the handbook outlines "our company's new core values" and "reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously, and to have fun." Unfortunately for the Los Angeles Times, legal documents (which are almost always referred to in employment law cases by one or both sides) do serve a legal function.

Although the handbook has the requisite disclaimer stating that it is not a contract, its provisions may be modified at any time, etc. and contains a footnote stating "Of course, Tribune follows...state laws," this will not let them off the hook in future litigation.

In provision 18.1.4 of the new handbook, the Tribune points out that:

It's good judgment not to put in writing what you don't want printed on the front page of a newspaper. Or posted on a website...

The company probably should have taken its own advice and left some of these provisions out of their official employee handbook, but it appears they did not consult an attorney before releasing it, so now they are stuck with it.

Use of Employee Handbooks in Litigation

Employee handbooks are used in litigation to demonstrate an employer's mindset, attitudes or as foreshadowing conduct at issue in a lawsuit.

For example, a handbook might say "you will be terminated immediately if you cannot satisfactorily perform your job due to a medical condition" (from an actual handbook I have seen in a case).

This is extremely good evidence in a disability discrimination or family medical leave case because it can be used as proof that the employer has already stated its intention not to comply with the law.

Examples from the Tribune Handbook

Here are some examples from the recently implemented handbook that point out that likely will cause its outside employment counsel to drive their head repeatedly into the nearest brick wall.

Harassment is not "Harassment"

From section 4, "Harassment Policy (Sexual & Otherwise), of part 3, "Employee Manual" of the handbook:

4.1 Working at Tribune means accepting a creative, quirky,...odd, humorous,...opinionated and sometimes annoying atmosphere.

4.2 Working at Tribune means accepting that sometimes you might hear a word that you...might not use...experience an attitude you don't share...[or] hear a joke that you might not consider funny.

4.3 This should be understood, should not be a surprise and is not considered harassment.

4.4 Harassment means being told that a raise, promotion or other benefit is dependent on you going on a date with your boss or some other similar activity. (emphasis added)

Provision 4.4 actually refers to the relatively uncommon "quid pro quo" sexual harassment, which includes "sleep with me or you are fired"-type conduct.

The vastly more prevalent form of sexual harassment is "hostile work environment" harassment, which occurs when a sexually-charged atmosphere is created, such as frequent, unwelcome sexual propositions towards an employee.

In fact, hostile work environment claims include situations where the conduct is not even directed at the plaintiff, such as other employees' constant viewing of pornography in close proximity to her or constant sexual comments about other employees to or within hearing distance of her.

Provisions 4.1-4.2 could easily be read to encompass a hostile work environment and 4.3's bold statement that in the company's view it is simply "not considered harassment". It does not take much work for a plaintiff's attorney to argue that this provision basically says that the company does not consider hostile work environments to be a form of harassment.

If an employee complains about such conduct and is ignored or retaliated against, provision 4.3 will be very damaging to the employer's case because its state position is that there is nothing wrong with the conduct in the first place.

Managers Love it When You Question Their Authority

8. QUESTION AUTHORITY. ...Question authority and push back if you do not like the answer. You will earn respect, and not get into trouble for asking tough questions.

In theory, this might seem to be a "breath of fresh air" and a great company-wide "open door policy". However, in practice this policy is likely bad for both employees and the company itself.

For the company, it is basically a promise that they will not take any action against an employee for complaining, no matter what it is about or how much they complaint. Every workplace has an employee who just loves to complain about anything and everything constantly. This provision both encourages such behavior and bars management from doing anything about it.

On the other side of the issue, I advise employees every day to be careful with taking such open-door policies too literally. It is commendable for a company to have a well-intentioned policy like this in place, but it has to be (and rarely is) followed by lower-level managers who usually do not like their orders or policies being questioned. In only a rare case will the employee earn any "respect" for complaining.

If an employee takes advantage of a policy like this, they should do so in writing and document both their complaints and their supervisor's reactions. That way, if retaliation does occur then there is a paper trail to prove it.

Alcoholism: Only Disease You Can Get in Trouble for Having1

7.1 If you use or abuse alcohol or drugs and fail to perform the duties required by your job acceptably, you are likely to be terminated...

Alcoholics and drug addicts are considered to be disabled under California law and an employer terminates them for it at their own risk. In many circumstances, the Americans with Disabilities Act also applies to these situations.

In fact, under California Labor Code § 1025-1028, employers are required to reasonably accommodate these employees by allowing them to attend an alcohol or drug rehabilitation program if they have a substance abuse problem.

These types of disability discrimination claims are often difficult to prove and an uphill battle to establish that the disability (and not its side effects along, e.g. tardiness, poor performance) is the reason for termination.

However, a handbook provision like this could be the piece of evidence that wins the case, since this is singled out as a specific reason for terminating a poor performer. In other words, it does not say "If you have a mental breakdown and fail to perform...," so an argument that the difference is the specific disability itself is the reason gains a great deal of credibility.

"The company intends to actively discriminate..."

2.4 The company intends to actively discriminate based on job performance, ability and attitude.

2.5 Discrimination based on gender, age, race, religion, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, disability, or any other characteristic not related to performance, ability or attitude, protected by federal or state law, or not protected (such as inability to tell a joke, the occasional poor wardrobe choice or bad hair day), is strictly prohibited.

There are a couple of issues with this provision that merit discussion, both of which can turn out bad for the company.

First, these paragraphs essentially promise that they will not terminate or otherwise discriminate based on any reason not related to performance, ability or attitude. Therefore, budget cuts, general "personality conflicts" with co-workers or management, or simply their manager's not liking them are not valid reasons to terminate or take any other action against an employee.

Second, while singling out someone with the "inability to tell a joke, the occasional poor wardrobe choice or bad hair day" as "unprotected" is clearly intended as a light-hearted joke, it could also be applied to that "weird" janitor/mailroom person/manual laborer who works for the company. I have represented some of these employees who are terminated for their social awkwardness which is sometimes a symptom of a disability such as mild autism.

While this may seem far-fetched, Tribune Co. has tens of thousands of employees and such an issue is bound to arise at some point in the next several years.

That's What Employment Law Attorneys Are For

Apparently the handbook was actually written by Randy Michaels, Tribune's CEO for Interactive Broadcasting. He has said he believe that "The more policies you have, the more opportunities there are for someone who is very unhappy to sue." However, with the right disclaimers in place, breaking a promise in an employee handbook itself provides no basis to sue.

Although our firm only practices employee rights law and does not advise employers or draft employee handbooks, this is most certainly the kind of thing that makes management-side employment law attorneys crucial in preventing lawsuits and other problems before they occur.

Mr. Michaels seems all too eager to say he is "amazed and amused at what lawyers get businesspeople to do," suggesting that other companies who pay lawyers to write (as the LA Time piece puts it) "the mind-numbing, lawyer gobbledygook in most corporate manuals" are being swindled or misled. In fact, that "gobbledygook" is often instrumental in successfully defeating many lawsuits by employees.

Once the Tribune faces its first lawsuit where this handbook is used as evidence against them, they will hopefully realize that Mr. Michaels has actually created more legal liabilities than he has prevented.

At that point, I will feel sorry for the attorney who has to defend a company that believes they will "have fewer legal problems with plain English and common sense than with pages and pages of rules". Essentially, that their own gobbledygook is better than any gobbledygook a lawyer could have written for them.

Good luck with that.

Table of Contents for This Series

  1. "Mind-Numbing Lawyer Gobbledygook" Overrated?
  2. Our Gobbledygood vs. Their Gobbledygook
  3. First Tribune Handbook Violator: Its Creator
  1. Courtesy of: Mitch Hedberg []
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6 Responses to “"Mind-Numbing Lawyer Gobbledygook" Overrated?”

  1. How Not to Write An Employee Handbook

    The Peters Law Group in Southern California is a small firm representing employees in discrimination, harassment and other litigation. They also publish the often excellent California Employee Rights Blog.Over the weekend, they published an amazing pos...

  2. Deoxy says:

    "Essentially, that their own gobbledygook is better than any gobbledygook a lawyer could have written for them."

    No, that "gobbledygook" that can be read and understood by 99% of the population is better than "gobbledygook" that is inconprehensible to 80% of the population. A legal system that is incomprehensible to the vast majority of those to whom it is supposed to apply is an incredibly bad system.

  3. Shadow Merchant says:

    It will be a great day when every company does something like this, and fights every lawsuit to the nth degree. I'd also like to see doctors go bare on malpractice insurance, and dare their patients to sue them. I'd like to see the legal system so jammed with lawsuits and uncollectible judgments that it fails altogether. Maybe then we could get out from under the thumb of the scum sucking lawyer filth who rule our lives. I support the kind of tort reform that would bankrupt 95% or more of attorneys.

  4. Andrew Mitton says:

    I agree with your post if the employer's only goal is to create a document that protects the employer in court. Those sorts of documents normally collect dust on a shelf. But if the company is trying to change its culture and create a document that employees actually read and understand, then I think the Tribune is on the right path. If employees actually read the document it just might affect their behavior and prevent bad things from happening. So the Tribune's document might end up being more valuable in the end.

  5. AMcA says:

    I think lawyers are in a bubble a lot of the time. They think juries respond well to carefully crafted lawyer-talk that goes into employee handbooks and the like. But somehow I doubt that. Normal people don't read lawyer-talk statements. They breeze over them, I suspect, because they're long and boring.

    I bet a jury would look with favor on the common language approach.

    This is not to say, however, that Tribune maybe said a few things they shouldn't have. . . .

  6. Steven says:

    Credit shouldn't go to Sam Zell or Tribune, rather to the original firm to adopt this document:

    http://www.localtvllc.com/aboutus/Local_TV_Policy_Manual.pdf
    -vs-
    http://corporate.tribune.com/media/pdf/New%20Handbook.pdf

    A quick glance and it's obvious, Tribune's "new" handbook is the same as the "Local TV, LLC" policy manual. Given that Randy, one of Zell's lieutenants, was CEO of Local TV before joining Tribune, it's not like anybody can be accused of plagiarizing.

    The flippant handbook might have worked out okay for an 800 person startup, we shall see if it scales as well to a Fortune 1000 firm with twenty times the staff.

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