2008 New Year’s Resolutions

            Every year in January I make resolutions. Not for me, but for you: the business owners, the supervisors and anyone else who has to manage employees on a daily basis.

            I spend so much time in my employment law practice trying to bail clients out of trouble with their employees, much of it trouble that could have been avoided in the first place. I would much rather teach you to prevent employee legal issues than have to defend you in court for your management mistakes.

            If you haven’t been sued by one of your employees for sexual harassment, age discrimination, or a workplace injury, consider yourself due. Small business with just 20 employees will see an employee lawsuit at least once every 5 years on average. Larger business will face these types of claims much more often.

            While employee lawsuits and governmental investigations into your employment practices are not completely unavoidable, you can take many steps to minimize your risks. Here are just four changes that you can make in 2008 to lower your employee claim risks:

  • Resolve to start using the new I-9 form correctly. Since December 2007, you should have been having each new hire fill out the recently-revised employment eligibility form known as the I-9. The form itself is available for free from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at http://www.uscis.gov/files/form/i-9.pdf. Once you download the new form, resolve to have each new employee fill out their part within the first 3 days that he is employed. Then fill out your part completely. Check the documents he provides carefully and make copies of them to show your due diligence. The whole process is not that hard, but I repeatedly see incomplete I-9 forms in employee personnel files.
  • Resolve to think carefully before you say anything that could be racist, ageist, sexist, or otherwise denigrating of a person’s protected class. I frequently read in my legal journals about the “stray remarks” of an owner or manager which are now being brought into court as evidence. Recent age discrimination cases included remarks such as “the company needs to attract younger talent”, a memo that outlined a plan to “thin the ranks” of older employees, and a description that an employee was “over the hill”. A pregnancy discrimination case was brought by an employee who was told by her supervisor that “she had a business to run and could not handle having a pregnant woman in the office”. I’m sure that none of these remarks were made by supervisors who were deliberately prejudiced. They were made by managers who were busy and were spoke without thinking. Do you really want to spend 2008 in court because you couldn’t tame your tongue?
  • Resolve to start valuing your older employees. The oldest Baby Boomers are now 62 years old. Everyone recognizes that the loss of their expert knowledge is going to leave a gaping hole in the American workforce in the next 10 years as they begin to retire, because your ability to replace them will not keep pace with the rate at which they will want to leave. In many cases you will be left with younger employees who have a completely different work ethic and set of priorities. Retaining older workers past the traditional retirement age will lower your turnover costs and fill in shortage areas such as nursing and teaching. So resolve to start plugging the boomer brain drain this year by encouraging your older workers to keep their skills sharp with training, their health good with wellness programs and their interest intense with challenging projects and attractive compensation. An additional benefit will be the elimination of your risk of age discrimination lawsuits, which traditionally are the most expensive to defend and the hardest to win of all the discrimination suits that a company can face.
  • Resolve to work on your interpersonal relationships this year. Any time I write a personnel policy manual, I include an interpersonal relationship policy: one which requires employees to be professional, flexible team players who find solutions rather than problems. But it often becomes obvious to me that the unprofessional team member is not the employee, but the boss. In a recent Yahoo/Hotjobs survey, 43% of employees said they were ready to leave their jobs because of their bad bosses. I’m sure they weren’t your employees, but couldn’t we all do better as managers? You may not be known for your relationship abilities, but if you are an owner of a business or a supervisor, your excellent people skills are critical to your employees’ productivity, satisfaction and ultimately to your business success. Resolve to become more honest about your own faults and then find ways to correct them: read some management books, get help with your anger, go to counseling, go to church, or do whatever else will help you improve as a manager and a person in 2008.

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