Category Archives: Personnel Policies

Texas Employers Face Open Carry Law

It appears almost certain that the Texas legislature will pass and Governor Abbott will sign a bill allowing the open carrying of handguns in Texas. The law will go into effect by 2016. Visible handguns in belt or shoulder holsters can be carried by anyone currently licensed to carry a concealed handgun in Texas. There are 841,500 Texans, or about 5% of Texans 21 or older, who are current concealed handgun license holders.

Openly carrying a handgun will be prohibited in areas where concealed carrying is now banned: schools, bars, sporting events and businesses that have posted signs banning handguns on the premises.

Employers in Texas need to decide now whether employees will be allowed to openly carry a handgun in the workplace. When concealed carrying was the rule, employers could take a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” stance on guns in the workplace. Now decisions have to be made because the issue will be so evident.

Texas employers may completely ban all guns on the premises, allow customers to openly carry but choose to prohibit employees from doing so, or also allow licensed employees to openly carry in the workplace. Considerations include deciding how your particular clientele and your workforce will feel about guns.

You may want to start some discussions now among your employees to explore their opinions. In February 2015, only 32% of Texas voters supported open carry in a UT-Texas Tribune poll. Seventy-five percent of Texas police chiefs opposed open carry in Texas, possibly because the new law is expected to prohibit law enforcement from asking if one carrying a holstered weapon is licensed to carry it. The police chiefs said they feared it is going to get very hard to tell the good guys from the bad ones. But if your business is in a dangerous area or your employees work at night, you may decide that allowing open carrying of handguns is a reasonable precaution for your employees.

You must also consider how comfortable you are as a business owner or manager being faced with a certain percentage of gun-toting employees and customers. Many employers are already uncomfortable when they have to fire an employee, no matter how justified the termination is. That termination process is not going to get easier when the employee being fired is openly armed.

Once you have decided how you are going to address this issue with your unique clientele and employees, ask your employment lawyer for a written policy to add to your employment handbook or the signs you need to inform the public coming to your place of business.

Paying Employees for After Hours Work

In the last three or four years, there have been several cases filed against employers by nonexempt (hourly) employees who claimed they worked more hours than they were paid for because they checked their work email accounts at home in the evening or they remotely accessed their work files and sent a document to a client or answered a supervisor’s questions after hours. Technology has made this type of work easy and acceptable, but it also has made us as employers sloppy about our pay practices.

Applying the Fair Labor Standards Act, which regulates overtime and minimum wages, has never been easy, but when an employee showed up at the office, punched a time clock at the beginning of the work day and again at the end, paying that employee correctly was simpler.  Nowadays, smartphones, flash drives, remote log-ins, texts, etc., have added a new layer of compliance issues to the FLSA. And attorneys who represent employees in wage and hour lawsuits are taking advantage of the complexity by bringing collective (class) actions against employers for failing to capture and compensate for the time employees spend using all of that technology outside of the office. These cases are very expensive because they court will always award the employee(s) two times their damages plus attorneys’ fees that often greatly exceed the damages.

Don’t stick your head in the sand on this issue and just hope you never get sued. At a minimum, you need a policy in writing addressing these issues. Tell your nonexempt employees that you never want them working “off the clock” and that you will pay them for any after hours work they perform. Let your employees know whether this kind of out of the office work is acceptable, or if not, be prepared to discipline your employees for performing it (but still pay them for it).

Gay Marriage Affects Texas Employers

 

Regardless of your political beliefs about gay marriage, you are going to need to start dealing with the legal implications in your business. The U.S. Supreme Court’s two decisions regarding gay marriage, issued June 26, will leave you as an employer with more questions than answers right now. Even though Texas doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages, there are going to be issues raised by your employees about the application of benefits and employment laws to same sex couples even within the 37 states that don’t yet allow gay marriages. As Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in his dissent:

Imagine a pair of women who marry in Albany and then move to Alabama, which does not “recognize as valid any marriage of parties of the same sex.” Ala. Code §30–1–19(e) (2011). When the couple files their next federal tax return, may it be a joint one? Which State’s law controls, for federal-law purposes: their State of celebration (which recognizes the marriage) or their State of domicile (which does not)? (Does the answer depend on whether they were just visiting in Albany?) Are these questions to be answered as a matter of federal common law, or perhaps by borrowing a State’s choice-of-law rules? If so, which State’s?

Justice Scalia could have continued with questions such as: Must an employer offer COBRA continuation coverage of health insurance to a same-sex spouse, since COBRA is federally regulated, not a state issue? Does an employer in Texas have to provide Family and Medical Leave for an employee to provide his same-sex spouse (who legally married elsewhere) with care for a serious medical condition? Again, FMLA is a federal law, not a state one. There is some speculation among lawyers that President Obama will direct federal agencies such as the Department of Labor, when interpreting federal statutes such as FMLA or COBRA, to treat the “State of celebration”, as Scalia called it, as the state that matters, not the state of residence. This could mean that you as a Texas employer could be liable under FMLA, for example, even though gay marriage isn’t allowed in Texas.

In addition, many employee handbooks define “immediate family” for purposes of bereavement leave, personal leave, nepotism and health insurance benefits and include just the word “spouse” without a definition. Are you going to make a distinction in your business that the “spouse” must be an opposite-sex spouse? And if you do, will you at some point face a federal lawsuit for discrimination?

Is your head spinning yet from these questions?

The courts and the administrative branch will eventually give us the answers to these questions, but as an employer, you have to deal with many of them now as best you can. My suggestion is that if any question involving same-sex marriage arises with your employees, you call an employment lawyer immediately to find out the very latest regulations on this issues.

Texas Legislature Strengthens Protections of Company Trade Secrets

The Texas Legislature in its most recent session adopted the Uniform Trade Secrets Act by passing Senate Bill 953. The new law, which will go into effect September 1, 2014, will help you keep your departing employees from competing against you using your own trade secrets, which are defined as “a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method technique, process, financial data, or list of actual or potential customers or suppliers.” Most employers ask me to protect their customer and/or supplier lists after the employee has left the company, which is about as effective as that old saying about closing the barn door after the horse has already bolted for greener pastures.

So the recently adopted statute is good news, but you as an employer have some responsibilities too. The trade secret will only be protected if it is (1) valuable; (2) not generally known to, and not readily ascertainable by proper means from others; and (3) subject to “efforts that are reasonable under the circumstances to maintain its secrecy”. In other words, you can’t blame a former employee for using your trade secrets if you made no efforts to keep them, you know, SECRET!

To prevail under this statute, which provides for an injunction and damages, you are going to have to show that you took proactive steps to protect your confidential property, such as:

  • Limiting employee access to the trade secret so that only those with a strong “need to know” gain access;
  • Labeling files or stamping the trade secret documents with “Confidential” or “Secret” stamps;
  • Password protecting the trade secrets if located on database;
  • Installing monitoring software to record who had access to the computerized trade secret;
  • Keeping the secret under lock and key;
  • Requiring numbering and shredding of all copies of the trade secret documents;
  • Requiring employees to sign non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements in addition to a written confidentiality policy in your employee handbook;
  • Conducting periodic inspections and reviews to beef up security of trade secrets; and/or
  • Having your employees sign a non-competition agreement that meets all of the quirky requirements for valid and enforceable non-competes in Texas.

If you can demonstrate that a former employee misappropriated valuable confidential information and you took some or all of these reasonable steps to protect your data before the employee left, this statute will allow your lawyers to more easily stop your employee and his new employer from profiting from your hard work and secrets.

Preventing Guns in Your Texas Workplace

In 2012 in the state of Texas, 584,850 citizens were actively licensed to carry a concealed handgun. That amounts to approximately one legally armed citizen out of every 45 people in Texas. As a business owner or manager, if you do not want anyone carrying guns on your commercial premises because you are concerned about the potential violence that could occur, you have two options. First, you can prevent your employees from carrying a handgun by having a written policy prohibiting that in your employee policy manual. However, a recent amendment of the law does allow employees to have their gun locked in their vehicles, even if they are parked in a parking lot on your property.

Second, to prevent the public from carrying a concealed handgun on your property, you must have a “30.06 sign” posted in a conspicuous place clearly visible to the public (at every entrance is the best idea). The sign requirements are a single sign, both in English and Spanish, with 1” high letters, in contrasting colors, containing the exact language from the Texas Penal Code section 30.06. The language in English must read: “Pursuant to Section 30.06, Penal Code (trespass by holder of license to carry a concealed handgun), a person licensed under Subchapter H, Chapter 411, Government Code (concealed handgun law), may not enter this property with a concealed handgun.”

Other signs, such as a picture of a handgun with a red slash through it, are ineffective in Texas and concealed handgun license class instructors tell their students to walk right past those signs. There is a one other valid sign in Texas called the 51% sign, but that only applies to prohibiting the public from carrying handguns on a premises that receives more than half of its income from serving customers alcohol.

It is still illegal for licensees to carry a handgun in Texas at a federal building, at a school, at a public sporting event, in a courthouse, at an election polling place or in a jail or prison, even if those places do not post any kind of sign prohibiting the carrying of a concealed weapon.

Employers Refuse to Recognize Rocky Mountain High

Many of my Texas clients also have offices in Colorado. Since that state legalized the recreational use of marijuana in November, I’ve begun receiving questions from my clients with locations in Colorado about their workplace drug use and testing policies. They want to understand their rights in light of the legality of marijuana in that state.

Legalized marijuana should be no more difficult for employers to handle than alcohol. If an employee is drunk on the job, you as an employer have a right to test him and to fire him for reporting to work under the influence of alcohol. An employee who is high on marijuana at work presents the same issue. However, marijuana shows up on drug tests long after the body has processed and gotten rid of alcohol. In other words, an employer testing on Monday won’t know that the employee was drunk on Friday night.  But if the employee got stoned on Friday night, testing on Monday will reveal that fact. Employers are therefore concerned that they won’t be able to fire an employee who tests positive for marijuana use but can’t be proven to be high at work. This generates anxiety for safety-conscious businesses.

At this point in time in the Fall of 2012, marijuana is still illegal in the United States, and therefore in every state. Just because an employee isn’t in violation of Colorado state law by smoking weed, he is still in violation of federal law and can be in violation of the employer’s substance abuse policy if it is well-written. Therefore, as an employer, make sure your policy states that, along with being under the influence at work, the use, possession or sale of illegal drugs is prohibited, and illegal drugs should be defined as any drug that is illegal under municipal, state and/or federal laws.

The federal Department of Transportation announced in December 2012 that state legalization of recreational pot would not change the rules prohibiting marijuana use by employees in safety-sensitive positions such as truck drivers, pilots and school bus drivers. Therefore, explaining away a positive test for marijuana by saying it was used legally in Colorado will not be an acceptable excuse and will still subject truck drivers, for example, to suspension of driving duties. Employers can take the same approach by letting employees know that the employer’s safety requirements will not be affected by state laws legalizing marijuana and that employees will still be subject to discipline up to and including termination for any drug test that shows marijuana use.

Requiring Professionalism from Your Employees

Tiffany rolls her eyes when you give her a task to perform. Chris and Spencer can’t get along and constantly bicker in the workplace. Maggie complains about the unfairness of how work is assigned.

Each of these employees lacks professionalism. While professionalism is hard to define, we all know it when we see it. I call some of these workers “finger-pointers”, some “whiners”, and the rest “brats”, but all of their behavior is immature and difficult to bear in the workplace. Unfortunately, most supervisors will just say that the employee has a “bad attitude” and will be reluctant to coach or encourage better behavior from these employees. Then, when the bad attitude dude is fired, it is difficult for the company to win an unemployment compensation appeal or a discrimination suit because there is rarely a policy in the employee handbook that says, “Thou shalt keep a good attitude at work”.

But every handbook can include a professionalism policy. Your policy could read something like this: Continue reading Requiring Professionalism from Your Employees

Employer’s Guide to Social Media

Sally Sassy, one of your best customer service representatives, posts pictures on her Facebook page that show her drunk, in a skimpy bikini and kissing many different men, even though she is married. Several of your customers are her “friends” on Facebook.

Derek Downer, likes to post negative comments on My Space about everything, including his job with your company as a bookkeeper. He often talks about how he hates his boss, disapproves of his coworkers, and thinks your company’s latest project is doomed.

Gail Gossip has a personal blog where she chronicles all of her feelings about work, including stories about her coworkers’ professional and personal struggles. Her blog is open to anyone who wants to read it.

Hayden the Human Resources director at your business uses Linked In to network with others in your industry, including finding well-qualified candidates for openings at your company.

All of these employees are using social media on the internet, in some ways that benefit your company but in other ways that can damage your business’ reputation or even your profits.

As the employer, you can adopt a policy to instruct your employees as to which posts on the internet are appropriate and professional and which are not. The only legal restriction comes from the National Labor Relations Board, which prohibits employers from adopting policies that restrain employees from engaging in concerted activity or from forming unions. The NLRB says that you cannot impose blanket restrictions, such as “employees cannot post any negative comments about this company.” Employees are free to discuss salaries, working conditions or terms of employment in person or on the internet.

However, you can expect your employees to use good judgment on the internet. You can direct your employees to protect your company’s trade secrets and confidential business information. You can prohibit the use of your logo. You can also require them to be professional and respectful towards your customers and your other employees. You can require them to get the permission of others before mentioning them on the internet as a way of protecting the privacy of your other employees, vendors and customers who might be appalled to find their personal business posted without their permission.

You can also remind employees that your other policies should not be violated on the internet. For example, an employee who posts sexual comments on a coworker’s blog or Facebook page may be violating your company sexual harassment policy and can be disciplined for that. Your company ethics and values policies may also prohibit certain inappropriate actions.

You can also limit the use of company computers, networks and company time for social media activity. You do not have to allow your employees to spend hours per day on your business computer updating their personal blogs.

As with any employee activity that could turn ugly, the best advice is that you as an employer adopt a written policy now, publish it to all of your employees, and prevent the problems before they happen.

Protect Your Business From Embezzlement

There was an insignificant story in the Amarillo newspaper last week about a former credit union employee who was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison for stealing $221,000 from her employer over a seven-year period. At least it seemed insignificant, based on the placement in the paper. But to her employer, I know it was very significant.

I’ve advised many employers in the Panhandle of Texas who have lost money to thieving employees. It has happened to large companies, small businesses, non-profits and for profits. I’ve dealt with embezzlement at banks, car dealerships, doctor’s offices, law offices, construction companies and charities. Each employer feels embarrassed to have been deceived, angry over the missing money (often which will not be recovered) and mistrustful of all employees from that point forward. Those reactions are understandable, since most embezzlement could have been prevented with some careful policies and practices.

Of the three factors leading to embezzlement, motivation (financial pressures), opportunity (access to company cash or accounts and a lack of corporate controls in place) and rationalization (its just a loan or my rich boss won’t miss it), opportunity is the only part of the equation that the business can control. Here are some of the ways to do this:

  • Thoroughly screen potential new hires by requiring a criminal history and by talking to past employers.
  • Never let any one employee, no matter how long tenured and how trusted, handle all the bookkeeping. You need a system of checks and balances.
  • Know your employees and consider the telltale signs of a potential problem: gambling losses, large medical bills, credit card debt, a standard of living above all possible income, etc.
  • Make every employee who has access to company funds take a long vacation every year while another employee performs his work and double-checks the procedures the absent employee follows.
  • Never sign checks that aren’t completely filled in or that lack supporting documentation like an invoice.
  • Require two signatures on checks over a certain amount, such as $500.
  • At least once per month, do your own mini-audit. Carefully check company credit card bills, cash flow and deposit slips, accounts payable, and other vulnerable items.
  • Have your business audited annually by an independent accountant.
  • Immediately fire any employee about whom you have strong evidence of theft. This person is not going to be rehabilitated through progressive discipline. And don’t worry about the fallout. If you can prove theft by the terminated employee, you will be protected from unemployment or discrimination claims.
  • Prosecute any thief to the full extent that the law allows. Often this is required by the insurance company if you want to recoup any of your losses. Some employers, like banks, are hesitant to do this because of the bad press it could cause. I think every employer has a societal obligation to prevent this from happening to another business by making sure the theft shows up on that employee’s criminal record from now on.

DOT Bans Truck Driver Texting While Driving

As a follow up to yesterday’s post on employer liability for employees who cause an automobile accident while using a cell phone, it is worth noting that the federal Department of Transportation just announced a prohibition of texting while driving for all interstate truck drivers, commercial bus drivers and van drivers who carry more than eight passengers. The law will be enforced with civil or criminal penalties, including fines up to $2750.

The Federal Motor Safety Administration’s research shows that drivers who send and receive text messages are distracted for 4.6 seconds out of every 6 seconds. So these drivers have their eyes off the road more than three-quarters of the time they are driving and texting.

The federal government has set an example for private employers not only by banning texting while driving for interstate truckers, but also for all federal employees. President Obama signed an executive order at the end of 2009 directing federal employees not to text while driving government-owned vehicles or while operating government-owned equipment. That is exactly the kind of written policy that all private employers should have.