A good employee handbook sets the tone for a workplace. It should provide information that employees need to know including company policies, benefits, and consequences for violations of the handbook provisions.
Employee handbooks are usually not legally mandated. In fact, many states do not legally require employers to follow their own policies. However, a company’s rules and policies are often pointed to in legal disputes, and they can frequently make or break a legal case. The best way to avoid such a conclusion is to set out clear policies and adhere to them consistently.
Employers that do not document conduct and/or performance issues with employees will regret it down the road. Whether the company faces an unemployment claim, EEOC Charge, lawsuit, or any other legal challenge, it is difficult to defend against a claim when there is no evidence of the employee’s bad behavior or poor work.
In addition, employment claims can take years to resolve. That means key witnesses can disappear. In the event that happens, documentation will be the main evidence upon which a company has to rely to avoid liability.
Federal law places specific requirements on the way employees are classified for purposes of pay. You cannot avoid paying overtime and make an employee work unlimited hours a week for a set amount of money simply by labeling them as “salaried.”
Only certain types of jobs are considered “exempt” from overtime (based on criteria set out under federal law). Likewise, an employer cannot label someone as an “independent contractor” who receives an IRS Form 1099 (versus a W-2 employee). There are specific legal criteria that must be met when making those designations.
Non-exempt employees (hourly or salaried) must be paid overtime for any hours exceeding 40 that were worked in a particular workweek.
TIP – Do NOT confuse this requirement by thinking that overtime is only paid if an employee works more than 80 hours in a 2 week pay period! You must look at hours per week.
An employer cannot avoid paying overtime by asking employees to work “off the clock” or shifting already worked hours into a different workweek.
It is especially important that employers keep track of the work hours for all non-exempt employees (including salaried). If a pay claim arises and there are no records, it will be extremely difficult to defeat the allegations, and the company could face liability for the unpaid overtime, liquidated damages as well as the employee’s attorneys’ fees (i.e., in addition to paying attorneys to defend the company!)
It is important to look into employee complaints to determine whether they are legitimate. While many issues may not implicate legal exposure, you never know.
Employment discrimination claims involve accusations that an employer unlawfully subjected an employee to adverse treatment based on one or more of their legally protected characteristics (race, age, gender, disability, pregnancy, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, etc.). Typically, these types of claims are based on the fact that the employer treated another employee more favorably under similar circumstances.
It is important to be proactive about safety issues. A company must maintain vehicles and equipment. Likewise, if there are any chemicals or other potential hazards in the workplace or used at job locations, make sure items are properly secured and stored. It is also critical to have any necessary personal protective equipment (“PPE”) and safety equipment for all employees who need it. Additionally, make sure that employees hold valid licenses, if required. Not addressing safety matters exposes your company to workers compensation claims, OSHA investigations, and third-party liability.
Multiple laws can be implicated when an employee identifies a health issue:
Additionally, the ADA requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for individuals with disabilities, which may include medical leave.
This law It also provides rules dictating when an employer can request medical information or require an employee to undergo a medical exam or inquiry.
Certainly, a HR department should be able to adequately handle certain “routine” matters (separation paperwork, investigating complaints, responding to unemployment claims where an employee quit, etc.). However, it is not advisable to have HR address any contested legal issues with a current or former employee.
Not many people “want” to call a lawyer. But spending a little up front to get some advice could save you from a legal claim that could lead your business into financial jeopardy. It is essential to have someone to call when you are not sure how to handle a situation – whether it’s a contract issue, drafting company policies, what documents are needed when hiring employee, how to pay certain employees, or uncertainty about handling employee complaints, discipline and termination.
Moreover, if you receive a demand letter, lawsuit, EEOC charge or other notice of a claim, you should immediately have a lawyer evaluate the situation to assess the potential exposure and to avoid missing any deadlines. EEOC Charges and lawsuits can be expensive and take years to resolve, even if the company did nothing wrong! Likewise, unemployment claims should not be ignored, as successful claims will increase your business expenses and can be used against the company in other legal proceedings.