Thomas Stilp, JD, MBA/MM, LLM, MSC
Businesses face many legal obstacles. Troubling lawsuits triggered by mistakes that are entirely avoidable should not be one of them. Yet, many businesses fail to take simple steps to avoid litigation over the treatment of employees.
Although enormously complex, employment legal woes in 90% of all lawsuits stem from one of these three everyday managerial moves: (1) mishandling employee problems, (2) harassment and discrimination, and (3) policies and procedures. Sounds simple?
Being proactive by fixing these problems will help keep your company out of court.
1. Mishandled Employee Problems:
Many employees who file complaints are prompted to do so because of the perception they were treated unfairly. To reduce the potential risk of litigation, it is important to have your facts down.
Should an employee refuse a legitimate work order, find the core root cause of the refusal. Bringing objections out in the open can help you overcome any disagreement.
Put issues in writing to have a record. Communicate facts concerning issues before they become bigger problems.
Experienced legal counsel will know what is needed and what to say easily, quickly and cost-effectively.
2. Harassment and Discrimination
All employees of a company must adhere to harassment and discrimination policies, including managers. When enacting new or updated policies, seek feedback from your managerial team; make managers feel accountable for following the rules and taking the correct action. Reiterate how any complaints of harassment can and will prevent them from receiving raises, bonuses, and promotions.
It is a manager’s duty to stop harassing behavior before it becomes a problem, but this is not always possible. Be sure to thoroughly investigate all complaints, however innocuous grievances may appear, to ensure accuracy so you can better tailor your actions to the situation.
Should an incident involving adverse employment actions occur, review the action taken by the manager and set discipline appropriate to the situation. Communicate clearly the logic of the action taken with the employee to help fend off the employee’s perception of retaliation or unfairness (see point #1 above – get it in writing and communicate).
Having litigated many lawsuits, experienced counsel will know what courts think is appropriate, what works and what doesn’t. And you’d be surprised.
3. Policies and Procedures
The company handbook provides your company an extra dose of legal protection and should be reviewed and practiced regularly. Emphasize that managers should also review the policies and procedures outlined in the company handbook with employees allowing all members of your company to seek clarification to weed out misunderstandings.
Take for example the common and easily corrected problem of tardiness and absenteeism. Both tardiness and absenteeism can be legally and effectively reduced by establishing, and consistently enforcing, a set of rules regarding employee lateness and absences.
Having a system for calling in and requiring employees to speak directly to a supervisor, confronting employees when issues increase, and reminding employees of the potential consequences of continued problems – especially in writing- will lead to an effective strategy to protect against potential lawsuits.
Conclusion – Get it in Writing and Communicate Often
Get it in writing and communicate — these two simple tips will help you avoid court.
Know your company. Get good counsel. Depending on the size of your business, you may be exempt from certain statutes enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) such as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act.
When unsure, it is always a good idea to seek counsel to keep your business safe from unwanted and expensive legal action.
Periodic meetings with counsel can be effective and a far less expensive means of enforcing policies and procedures than a trip to court. A legal bill for a two -hour meeting is far less expensive than a $100,000 lawsuit.