It’s been a busy time in the world of employment law. A few recent developments have particular priority for human resources managers and general business lawyers. This post concerns three of those developments: trade secrets, overtime exemptions, and changes to the E.E.O.-1 form.

New Trade Secret Protections and Requirements

One development concerns proprietary and confidential information. A new law offers the first federal protections for trade secrets. It’s an important law. Part of it authorizes the seizure of things that were used in the process of allegedly diverting trade secrets, such as computers and storage media. That’s an important contingency that should be considered when provisioning critical hardware, proprietary software, and network access.

Another part of the law requires the supplementation of all agreements with employees and contractors which addresses confidential information or trade secrets. Those materials must now contain a notice to employees (or reference to a separate, available document) to the effect that trade secrets may be used in a limited fashion to engage in whistleblowing activity or in employment litigation alleging whistleblower retaliation.

In light of the Defend Trade Secrets Act, employee agreements, handbook policies, and other materials which contain provisions on trade secrets should be reviewed and supplemented with appropriate text as soon as possible. (And, of course, this is a good opportunity to be sure that other developments from the past few years are properly implemented, such as Minnesota’s Women’s Economic Security Act and the N.L.R.B.’s application of Section 7 to handbook and other employee policies.)

New Overtime Eligibility Rule, Pay Equity, and the E.E.O.-1

Most employers by now have received multiple announcements of the final rule issued last month by the U.S. Department of Labor concerning the increased salary threshold required to be exempt from overtime. Organizations should review their options on classifying and compensating affected employees. There are several ways to proceed in compliance with the regulation, depending on employer objectives.

Just complying with the new rule, though, could leave an organization vulnerable to adverse assessments in the near future, assuming that the categories of data required for the E.E.O.-1 form expand as planned. Here’s why, and what to do:

All organizations with 100 employees and many smaller organizations must file an E.E.O.-1 annually with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The form includes information on current employees by job category, ethnicity, and sex. If the current rulemaking proceeds as planned, the form will also include twelve compensation bands. Now hold that thought….

There’s been a resumption in the discussions among some circles about comparable worth analyses. The comparable worth approach seeks to close the gender-based pay gap by comparing compensation by gender within “comparable,” but not “equal,” jobs. Minnesota and California have long required comparable pay assessments in the public sector. Minnesota now also requires comparable pay for private and third sector employers with at least forty employees having government contracts of at least a half-million dollars. There is an increased focus, and in some areas also legislative activity, around employee protections for discussing compensation issues. Add in the increase in data collection, analysis, and dissemination that current technologies and vendors are providing, and it seems likely that there will be an increase in lawsuits attempting to prove sex discrimination through a deep analysis of how employers have arrived at gender disparities in the compensation of comparable, but not equal, jobs. Let’s go back to those E.E.O.-1 changes.

The new form will funnel multiple jobs and job categories into a dozen compensation-based bands for employers (and sufficiently related employer groups) having 100 employees. By doing so, the information will help the government to assess the distribution of jobs by compensation level as well as by the various other attributes entered into the form.

The information should also help employers to smooth out gender- (and other non-job-) based inequities, whether derived from bias, history, or other sources. Smoothing out those arguable inequities would minimize exposure to a range of problems based on a comparable worth analysis, including investor inquiries, government contract compliance, and even discrimination claims, which have generally been unsuccessful but are showing signs of making a comeback. And what might happen if the EEO-1 shows inequities that are not self-remedied? In litigation, the information would likely become available (from the employer, not the government) to plaintiffs challenging job bias.

Now let’s go back to that new F.L.S.A. regulation. Employers should review the overtime classifications of currently exempt workers who make less than the new salary threshold. They could take this opportunity to review, as well, their other employees’ overtime classifications. But any adjustments employers make—e.g., to classification, compensation levels, compensation mechanisms, reporting lines—should anticipate the forthcoming E.E.O.-1 requirements. This is a good time to rationalize classifications and compensation, and to develop a plan to squeeze out any vestige of bias in the way that employees are compensated and assigned. More guidance on ways to implement the new rule will appear in a later post.

A comprehensive approach to these issues also answers one of the common questions raised by the new F.L.S.A. regulation: “How do I communicate the effects of the rule change to my workforce?” Communicating a systematic review of compensation to make the process more transparent and more equitable can increase an employee’s perception of fairness; and research indicates that increased perceptions of fairness result in a decreased litigation risk. (Other elements to communicate in the course of implementing the regulation depend on employer objectives and choices, but the message to employees need not be negative and the effect on employer budgets need not be extreme.) More information on the subject of communication will appear in a later post.

Note that employers are likely to have an obligation to bargain over one or more aspects of compensation adjustments for unionized employees. The scope of the bargaining duty will depend on the specific collective bargaining relationship, including both contract language and past practice.

A careful implementation of the new overtime salary rule could be an affordable opportunity to improve morale, enhance recruiting and retention, minimize bias-related exposure to liability, and promote regulatory compliance. Let us know if we can help.