Labor and Employment Law: Q&A with Clarence Belnavis
Clarence Belnavis is a partner in the Portland, Oregon office of Fisher & Phillips LLP. He has substantial experience handling various types of employment litigation including disability, racial, and gender discrimination; retaliation; sexual harassment; and wrongful discharge. He also represents employers in wage and hour claims, employment class actions and traditional labor matters. Clarence began his legal career serving as a law clerk in the Office of the General Counsel for the Department of the Navy, and he served as a judicial intern for Judge A. Burnett, Superior Court, and Washington, D.C. He has been .has been listed in “Oregon Super Lawyers” by Law & Politics magazine, was named one of Portland's "Top 40 Under 40" by the Portland Business Journal, and is listed in Chambers USA, America's Leading Business Lawyers 2006, 2008 and Best Lawyers in America 2009.
In a Q&A with Colors of Influence, Clarence shares more detail about his work.
What issues in employment discrimination do you specialize in?
The work runs the full gamut. There’s a break between traditional labor, union-oriented stuff, as well as working in non-union environments. On the employment law side, I deal with discrimination issues related to national origin, race, age religion, and sexual orientation. There are cases dealing with retaliation issues, breach of employment contract, noncompetition, among many other issues.
How does your work impact communities of color?
It’s important to have somebody from a diverse background advising folks on how to address the issues, and helping make decisions. I spent a lot of time over the past year, working at companies dealing with workforce reductions. One of the things I did was to look at who was selected for layoffs, to make sure that no particular group was selected or targeted for the reductions. It’s important to make sure that the system has integrity, no matter what system is used for layoffs. It was not a project that I enjoyed the most, but it was an important thing to do to make sure that no one group was affected adversely.
I also do trainings within organizations when an employer wants to make sure that they are in compliance with the laws and regulations concerning a host of employment issues. People from diverse backgrounds want to work in positive and healthy environments. That’s why the training work is important to me: training managers and supervisors about what you can and cannot do, especially when it concerns the rights of individual workers.
In terms of your legal practice, what are you the best in the world at?
Once the lawyers are involved in employment disputes, they tend to be situations where emotions are running high. Because of the very nature of the types of allegations raised in employment discrimination cases, they tend to be complicated. I work best when I have the opportunity to make sure that calmer heads prevail, and that everyone deals with the situation from a reasoned perspective. I believe I have the ability not to react to the emotions of the situation. I like to think that I do a very good job of negotiating all those obstacles to get to an end result.
What are some of the trends you’re seeing in employment law?
Unfortunately, we’re at a place where employers are running leaner. Main challenges for employers are getting as much productivity out of those remaining in the workplace. If you have a department of 20 individuals, and you lay off five of them, the department must still produce the same level of work out of fewer employees. A lot of companies are achieving greater levels of productivity, but it really puts a lot of pressure on the remaining folks.
Another trend is the rise in claims brought against employers. Some individuals who leave the workplace are looking for an opportunity to have some financial security. Some of this involves a slight that somebody suffered could be remembered when that person is selected in reduction in force, termination, or some form of disciplinary action. Given current cost-cutting environment, it‘s easier to get into litigation from an employer’s standpoint.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that more and more rules are being layered on employers. It’s really tough to manage individuals nowadays because of the constantly changing rules and statutes about how folks should interact in the workplace. The end result: there‘s a lot to manage, because there’s a lot that you can get wrong. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some things need to be corrected, but the playing field is becoming more and more complex for employers. Rules can be hyper-technical. For an employer, if you get something wrong, there are huge repercussions.
What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned from your involvement in trade associations?
The best takeaway from that is the exposure to a lot of practitioners of color in our community. Like any other industry, folks get busy, the opportunity to network with other professionals is often difficult, and participating in those groups provided me a great opportunity in networking with others. Seeing who’s doing what, and it’s especially encouraging to see folks from diverse backgrounds doing well.
Why do you make time to serve on nonprofit boards?
I went to Howard University School of Law. One of my professors said: “An attorney is either a social engineer, or a parasite on society.” The point is that it’s important to have another dimension to your work to engage folks socially on issues that are important to them.
Participating in nonprofit boards is so important. It is so easy to get caught up in the daily grind of work. I believe nonprofits deserve the same caliber of legal services that for-profit companies have. It’s important for attorneys to provide time free of charge, or at least discount their rates, so socially-motivated organizations can have access to quality legal services.
What do you consider as the most challenging aspect of your work?
Helping folks make decisions that will help them in the long run. Given the nature of what I do, the fact patterns are full of emotions. A lot of folks want to be “right” in a situation. Sometimes folks are motivated by a host of issues. So often, an employer or individual feels that he or she has been personally wronged with how a matter was dealt with. That feeling of hurt can in and of itself become an impediment to getting it resolved, because the emotions continue to run high.
It’s important to have folks step back from a situation, so they can see the issue from somebody else’s perspective. What do you see? Do you really wish to move forward, or do you want to resolve it. It’s not always easy, because some folks want to take personal issues and grudges and play them out on multiple levels.
How does your cultural background impact the way that you lead?
I was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and raised in the West Indies until I was 8, when I came to the States. As an immigrant coming from someplace else, there’s usually a few years’ lag before you completely adjust to your new environment.
What my background allows me to do is to step outside of a situation. You’d be surprised what sorts of cultural norms people assume, based on how an individual looks, how they talk, how they carry themselves. Those norms are generalizations based on how folks look, act or seem. Coming from a different background helps me further encourage folks to look at things from a more objective perspective.
More often than not, problems arise in the workplace because people fail to communicate with each other. Are there situations where typical forms of discrimination actually exist? Sure, but I find that more often than not, most exchanges involving alleged discrimination have to do with misunderstandings. Generally, people want to get along positively with their co-workers. What I try to do is train around things that help folks be patient with others, that they fully understand what’s happening, and that they are engaging employees in a positive fashion.
When training individuals, it’s important to remind folks that there may be a certain level of familiarity with co-workers, and a chance for that to be abused. When people know personal things about you – especially folks you’ve worked with for years – they can privy to information that can cause them to “push your buttons.” Sometimes people don’t even know they’re doing it. The thought is that everyone needs to be aware that these issues exist, and they need to be aware of it, so everyone can get along better in the workplace.
Spring 2010 Colors of Influence