Category Archives: Personnel Policies

10 Facts Texas Employers Should Know About Unemployment

Do I have to pay unemployment on my employee who just quit/resigned/got fired/was laid off?

During most of my thirty years as an employment lawyer, I have been asked that question at least once a week. Here are ten basic facts that every employer in Texas needs to understand about our state’s unemployment system: Continue reading 10 Facts Texas Employers Should Know About Unemployment

Hook Ups and Break Ups in the Workplace

More than one-third of American employees have dated a coworker, according to Harris Polls’ latest annual survey for Career Builder, so as an employer, you are going to be inevitably faced with the problems that coworker hook ups and break ups can cause in your workplace.

In the beginning of a workplace romance, it is important for employers to find out about the relationship and set the ground rules before things get messy. You can adopt a written policy that requires employees to notify the company when they “start dating”, although defining that is pretty difficult. Nowadays, does “dating’ mean they’ve had the first date, the second hook up, or just that one of them has changed his or her relationship status on Facebook?

Some employees are not going to readily tell you that a relationship has started. The Career Builder survey shows that 25% of the relationships at work involved a married coworker. So those people will probably stay quiet. However, the study also showed that 37% of employees thought they had to keep their office romance a secret at work.

As the employer, you can’t stay in the dark, so you need to assure your employees that you have to know and that you will work with them to help everyone adjust to the new coworker relationship.

Once you know about the new couple, you have to communicate your expectations to them. You can do this by written policy, a specific “love contract” that the new couple signs, or by verbal coaching, although something in writing is always preferred by your employment lawyer.

You have to address the end of the relationship in the beginning. While about 31% of workplace romances lead to marriage, the Career Builder survey says, that leaves 69% that result in a break up and the bitterness that a soured romance can cause in your workplace. Break ups can even cause good employees to leave your company (6% leave, according to that study).

Anticipating that greater than two-thirds of the dating relationships between your employees will eventually end, what are the necessary ground rules of hook ups and break ups that an employer should impose? Continue reading Hook Ups and Break Ups in the Workplace

My Christmas Wishes for Employers

It is that time of year when we are singing, “We wish you a Merry Christmas”. As an employment lawyer with 30 years of experience, I have some idea of what you as a business owner or manager are wishing this Christmas.

I know you work hard as a supervisor. Managing people every day isn’t an easy job, particularly if your employees do not have a willing attitude to try to be a good employee.

I hear from employers every day about the frustrations that you face as an employer. The average person who supervises employees spends at least 20% of her time just dealing with employee mistakes, complaints, emotions, negligence, etc., on top of trying to do all of her regular work.

So, for this Christmas, I have made a list of what I wish for you as a supervisor in terms of employees.

  • Employees who realize that the purpose of a business is to make a profit, and that requires that the employee actually be present to perform the work assigned. I recently had a matter involving an employee who was tardy repeatedly for things like a flat tire, a loose dog and “I forgot to set my alarm”, so that client meetings had to be cancelled and business was lost. I wish for you as a supervisor the employment of people who realize that these little issues chip away at a business’s profitability. Even a small company should provide a generous amount of vacation time, sick leave and holiday pay. But once an employee has used up his allotted paid time off, he needs to think seriously about getting back to work and being productive for you or the business may not be there to provide his paid vacation the next year.
  • Employees who can be trusted with the success of your business, as well as the company’s time, money, and equipment. Every year I see a number of business owners in the Panhandle lose significant amounts of money to employee embezzlement, lose equipment to employee negligence and lose profitability to employee laziness. Granted, the employer needs to have reasonable checks and balances in place to try to prevent these losses. But wouldn’t it be nice if all of your employees were the kind of people who had enough integrity to forego theft, enough caution to treat your property as theirs, and enough loyalty to go above and beyond the bare minimum effort.
  • Sober employees. Most business now drug-test when an employee is hired. This has resulted in a drop nationwide in pre-hire positive drug tests. But I still see injuries and damage done by substance-abusing employees after they have worked for the business for a while. My wish is that you don’t have to deal with those issues. You can help make my wish come true by actually requiring the occasional random drug and alcohol testing in your workplace, as well as testing immediately after any personal injury or property damage occurs at work that might have been caused by an impaired employee.
  • Employees who exercise verbal discretion. Employees who gossip, spread rumors, complain, speculate and backstab in an effort to make themselves look better simply don’t realize that respect is given to those who keep their negativity and rumor-mongering to themselves. It would be great if Santa could bring each of your employees the gift of discretion this year. As someone wise said, “Discretion is the ability to raise your eyebrow instead of your voice.”
  • Employees who appreciate feedback and even criticism because it makes them better at their job. I have often thought that the clearest sign of maturity in an employee is his ability to accept constructive criticism, or even better, to ask for it. So, I wish for you employees who know that wisdom comes from humility and accountability. You deserve those employees who are not afraid to find out if they made a mistake and to ask you the best course to avoid such mistakes in the future.
  • Employees who take pride in their work regardless of who gets the credit. “My grandfather once told me that there were two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was much less competition.” – Indira Ghandi. Enough said.

Such employees sound like a dream, like a Christmas wish, don’t they? But you probably know that the best way to cultivate such employees is to lead from the top down. You must be the type of leader whose character, work ethic, sobriety, discretion and integrity are unquestionable if that is the type employee you want to employ.

As I have said before in my blog posts: “You will get the employees you deserve if you are quick-tempered, unfair, dishonest, prejudiced, undependable, selfish or disloyal to your employees. Your values, good or bad, will set the standard for everyone you supervise.”

 

         

Holiday Party Precautions

The holiday season is upon us and as employers, many of you will celebrate in that great American tradition: you will throw a big Christmas party for your employees, serve them alcohol and then turn them loose on an unsuspecting public.

Consider what could happen while the booze is freely flowing at your company holiday celebration: the alcohol emboldens a potential sexual harasser and he becomes an actual harasser of one of your staff, or a conflict between employees is fueled by alcohol and an actual physical confrontation erupt.

Another likely scenario is that your inebriated assistant gets into a car after you bought drinks at the holiday happy hour and runs down a pedestrian.

Whether the pedestrian could win a lawsuit is debatable. Back in 1987, the Texas Supreme Court said, “The risk and likelihood of injury from serving alcohol to an intoxicated person whom the licensee knows will probably drive a car is as readily foreseen as injury resulting from setting loose a live rattlesnake in a shopping mall.”

The general rule in Texas is, however, that a social host doesn’t incur liability for serving alcohol to a guest.  However, a plaintiffs’ lawyer would be happy to create new case law with a suit against an employer for encouraging an employee to get drunk at a company function and then taking no steps to protect the public from that employee on the way home.

You don’t want to be the one to provide the courts with the test case to see if an employer is responsible for its intoxicated employees. Even if you win at trial, you will lose the tens of thousands of dollars it costs to have an attorney defend the suit, you will waste valuable production time while in depositions or trial, and you and your employees will suffer a demoralizing emotional blow.

You also should be concerned about the effect that hosting a big drunken blow out will have on your ability to enforce your drug and alcohol policies at the office. This kind of inconsistency does not engender respect for you in your employees.

For the same reason, as the boss, you should watch your own drinking and behavior at any company function.

Your best decision is to honor your employees during the holidays with a party that is nonalcoholic. If you choose to serve alcohol, take a few reasonable precautions: Continue reading Holiday Party Precautions

Is a Helicopter Spouse or Parent Hovering Over Your Workplace?

As an employer, can you insist on an employee talking for himself rather than you listening to input from his helicopter spouse or parent? Thankfully, the answer is “yes”.

You do not need to allow an applicant’s parent or spouse to fill out the application, set up the interview, attend the interview, ask questions by text during the interview, call to ask how the interview went, or insist on knowing the salary and terms of employment when the job is offered.

In fact, if any of these occur when you are considering a job candidate, I would have to question your judgment if you hired that candidate without seriously pondering his/her maturity to actually handle a job at your company.

You are not alone if you have had to fend off interfering parents as an employer.

In 2007, the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University published a survey of 725 employers that found that nearly a quarter had encountered parental involvement in the hiring process and the early stages of workers’ careers.

Within that group of employers, more than 30 percent reported parents submitting a résumé for their children; 15 percent reported fielding complaints from a parent when the company didn’t hire their child; and nearly 10 percent said parents had insinuated themselves into salary and benefit negotiations.

New York Times, June 21, 2017.

Similarly, once an employee is working for you, you should let the employee be his/her own mouthpiece. Draw some boundaries and insist that all interactions regarding the employee’s performance, salary, attendance, misbehavior, and termination be conducted only with the employee. If the employee says he/she prefers her helicopter spouse’s involvement, say “no” and remind the employee that if he/she can’t speak for himself/herself, the employee may not be professional enough to work for your company.

I bring this up because after 30 years of employment law practice, I often think there is nothing new under the sun. Granted, Amarillo tends to lag behind nationwide trends. But for the first time this year, I have encountered this helicopter family problem frequently enough that I am recommending a new written policy to my clients along the lines of “ABC Company will discuss job-related matters only with the employee himself or herself and not family members, significant others or friends.

Sadly, the advice requested recently of me that prompted me adding this policy to employee handbooks was not pushy parents—it was helicopter spouses (or fiancées or significant others). Continue reading Is a Helicopter Spouse or Parent Hovering Over Your Workplace?

Workplaces Must Accommodate A Nursing Mother

A nursing mother in your workplace has certain employment rights that you as an employer must understand. Until the time that the child is one year old, Texas employers must provide the time and space for the mother to breastfeed the baby (if children are allowed at the workplace) or to express milk to be stored for later.

The federal compensation law, the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), was amended in 2010 to require employers to provide nursing mothers with “reasonable” break time to pump breast milk. Employers must realize that there is no one definition of what is “reasonable” that applies to every new mother.

The Department of Labor says in its Fact Sheet #73 regarding Break Time for Nursing Mothers, “employers are required to provide a reasonable amount of break time to express milk as frequently as needed by the nursing mother. The frequency of breaks needed to express milk, as well as the duration of each break, will likely vary.” Speaking from experience, nursing may take 10 minutes, 25 minutes, 40 minutes or even longer and isn’t standardized from mom to mom, day to day, or break to break.

If you provide coffee breaks or meal breaks during the day to other employees and pay them during that break (which the FLSA requires you to do if the break is less than 20 minutes), then you should allow your nursing mothers to use those breaks if convenient and be paid during those breaks just like any other employee.

Otherwise, nursing breaks do not have to be compensated, so you can require a nonexempt (hourly) employee to clock out during the break so that the nursing break isn’t paid. If that means that the employee has to stay longer each day to actually perform work for 40 hours per week, you as an employee can require that extra time. Or you can choose to pay the employee for only the hours worked, which may be less than 40 when lots of nursing breaks are taken.

The easiest way to address compensation is to have a written policy that states that all nursing breaks of 20 minutes or less are paid, but longer breaks are unpaid.

You also have a responsibility as an employer to provide a place for the nursing mother to breastfeed or express milk. That place cannot be a bathroom. The area must be private with a lock on the door or another way to assure that the public and/or coworkers won’t barge in while the employee is nursing or pumping. If you have more than one nursing mother employed at a time, it is common practice to have a sign up or reservation-type system for the room you designate for expressing milk.

The secluded place the employer provides must be functional for expressing milk, meaning it should at least be furnished with a comfortable chair. Many employers provide a small dorm-sized refrigerator and a Sharpee in the nursing area so that the expressed milk can be labelled and dated and kept cool until the new mother can take it home.

Texas allows employers who adopt a new mother-friendly written policy to advertise that it is a “mother-friendly” business. If that “carrot” approach doesn’t convince you, then the “stick” is that failure to provide adequate breaks and a secure place for nursing mothers means that not only will your business be violating the FLSA, but also the employee can bring a sex discrimination or sexual harassment action if you have at least 15 employees.

A federal court has also ruled that breastfeeding is a medical condition related to pregnancy and maternity, so you can also be sued under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. You must additionally prevent an employee from being retaliated against for exercising her rights as a nursing mother, i.e., you must assure that her supervisor doesn’t give her a poor evaluation or demote her because her nursing rights create some disruption in the office.

Small employers (less than 50) have one defense to these kinds of claims. Continue reading Workplaces Must Accommodate A Nursing Mother

Why Drug Test Your Current Employees?

As an employer, you should be committed to a drug-free and alcohol-free work environment that protects both your employees, your customers and the general public.

Drug testing your employees is an important component of that safety commitment. However, while many employers test before hiring an applicant, nearly two-thirds of employers never conduct a drug or alcohol test on current employees, according to a Society for Human Resources study in 2011.

When employers do test current employees for drugs, employees test positive about 4.2% of the time, according to the latest numbers from the annual Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index. That number is creeping up and is at its highest level since 2004.

Even if you are a small employer with only 25 employees, that still means that one of your current employees could test positive for drugs right now. What if that one person is the delivery driver, the heavy machinery operator, the EMT, the security guard or any other safety sensitive employee working for you? Are you willing to take a chance with the safety of your other employees and your customers?

That only 4.2% of employees test positive for drugs or alcohol is actually a little low considering how many people are actually addicted to those substances. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2016 estimated that 8% of all Texans have a substance abuse disorder, with three-quarters of those Texans addicted to alcohol. The rest are hooked on marijuana, meth, heroin, cocaine and prescription opioids, in that order.

As a Texas employer, you don’t have to allow employees to be impaired at work. Continue reading Why Drug Test Your Current Employees?

Simple Hiring Checklist for Texas Employers

hiring-signHiring in Texas can be done in a very efficient and effective manner that reduces your chances of violating employment laws if you follow this simple hiring checklist. While large employers may need to add many more steps, I have found in 25+ years of law practice that many small employers aren’t even doing these simple steps, but should be:

 

  • Is one well-trained centralized manager with human resources experience doing the hiring instead of a group of supervisors who might ask the wrong questions?
  • Do you have a job description of the job for which you are hiring so you know the job-related qualifications?
  • Did you carefully word your job advertising so as not to discriminate?
  • If you require that an application be completed, is your application form up to date and without legal pitfalls?
  • Does the interview focus only on job-related qualifications and not personal information?
  • Do you stay away from open-ended questions like “Tell me about yourself”, which could elicit all kinds of information from the applicant that could be considered the basis of a discrimination claim?
  • Is the interviewer using an outline so that each applicant is asked the same questions and you can compare apples to apples rather than relying on the interviewer’s conversation skills and “gut reaction”?
  • Do not ask questions in the interview about the following topics. If this seems like a whole bunch of rules to remember, try focusing on this one rule: If your question isn’t related to how the applicant could perform the job duties, don’t ask it.
    • Race or color (photographs should not be requested)
    • Gender or marital status or sexual orientation
    • Whether applicant has young children, what his/her daycare arrangements are, or other family questions.
    • Age, including date of birth or when the applicant graduated from high school
    • Religion, including “Where do you go to church?” and “What do you do with your Sundays?”
    • Union membership or affiliation
    • Criminal arrests or convictions (you can run a background check if you decide to actually offer the job, but you must comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act in obtaining the background check)
    • National origin or ethnicity (don’t ask about an applicant’s birthplace, accent, parentage, ancestry).
    • Citizenship (only inquire into an applicant’s eligibility to work in the United States, not their citizenship).
    • Education beyond what is necessary for the job (inflated educational requirements can have a chilling effect on minority applicants; therefore only ask educational questions that are relevant to the actual job responsibilities).
    • What clubs and organizations do you belong to? What causes do you support? (this could reveal illnesses, religious beliefs, family issues, marital status, race and other grounds on which you could be accused of discriminating).
    • Are you pregnant? Are you planning on having kids? (pregnancy and/or gender discrimination).
    • Have you ever declared bankruptcy? (discrimination under the Bankruptcy Act).
    • Is English your first language? Do you know that we have an English-only policy? (national origin discrimination)
    • Do you have elderly parents or an illness in the family that would take you away from work? (disability discrimination).
  • Do not ask the following questions in an interview that could violate the Americans with Disabilities Act:
    • Whether an applicant needs a reasonable accommodation to perform the job, unless the disability is apparent or the applicant voluntarily divulges it.
    • Details of an applicant’s worker’s compensation history.
    • Whether the applicant can perform “major life activities,” such as standing, lifting and walking.
    • Whether the applicant has any physical or mental impairments.
    • Whether the applicant is taking prescription medication or any other lawful drugs.
    • If the applicant has used illegal drugs in the past or has ever been addicted to drugs.
    • Whether the applicant has participated in an alcohol or drug rehabilitation program.
    • How frequently the applicant consumes alcoholic beverages.
  • Certain questions are permissible under the ADA:
    • Whether an applicant can perform the essential functions of the job.
    • How the applicant will perform the essential functions of the job, if all applicants are asked this question.
    • Whether an applicant needs reasonable accommodation for the hiring process.
    • Whether an applicant can meet the employer’s attendance requirements.
    • Whether an applicant has ever been convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or drug if driving is an essential duty of the job.
    • Whether an applicant is a current illegal drug user (drug testing the successful applicant after a conditional offer of the job is the best way to handle this).

Once you think you have narrowed your choices down to the applicant that you would like to hire, you can make a job offer conditional upon the results of these items: Continue reading Simple Hiring Checklist for Texas Employers

Sexual Harassment Prevention Training Essential

Training photo

Every employer with 15 or more employees needs to require employees to attend sexual harassment prevention training. That is the takeaway that businesses need to understand from a new task force report on harassment in the workplace that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission published in June 2016.

The EEOC’s report states that businesses have “to reboot workplace harassment prevention efforts.” The EEOC is especially concerned that most sexual harassment  prevention training focuses only on defining harassment and telling employees what they are prohibited legally from doing.

Instead, the EEOC is encouraging (read: requiring) businesses to also include workplace civility training and bystander intervention training. If a disgruntled employee makes an illegal harassment claim against your business in the future, the EEOC, as the investigating agency, is going to immediately require your business to provide evidence that you thoroughly trained your employees on these new topics. If the harassment complaint goes to trial, this training will also be your best defense.

Bystander Intervention Training is defined by the EEOC report as training that helps employees identify unwelcome and offensive behavior and creates collective responsibility to step in and take action when they see other employees exhibit problematic behaviors. The training is geared towards empowering employees to intervene when they see unacceptable conduct and gives them resources to do so.

Workplace civility training focuses on teaching employees to abide by reasonable expectations of respect and cooperation in the workplace. The emphasis is supposed to be positive—what the employees should do—rather than those things they are prohibited from doing. The training needs to include navigation of interpersonal relationships, an understanding of conflict resolution and teaching supervisors how to be civility coaches. In other words, it is now the company’s responsibility to teach workers how to be responsible, respectful professionals. On the job training and supervisor modeling is fine, but you need to add formal in-house training also.

Interestingly, at the same time that the EEOC is “encouraging” employers to promote more civility in the workplace and to prevent bullying and harassment, the National Labor Relations Board is issuing decisions that punish non-unionized businesses for written policies requiring employees to be respectful to coworkers.

The NRLB has repeatedly found that a company is infringing on an employee’s labor rights when the employer enforces handbook policies like this one from T-Mobile’s employee manual: “Employees are expected to maintain a positive work environment by communicating in a manner that is conducive to effective working relationships with clients, co-workers and management.” The NRLB thinks that kind of policy has a chilling effect on employees who have a right to discuss with coworkers all of the terms and conditions of their employment. I’ve alerted you about the NRLB’s crusade against policy manuals before.

So you as an employer are left with trying to decide whether to be investigated and sued by the NLRB or the EEOC. Continue reading Sexual Harassment Prevention Training Essential

Pot Smoking Still Grounds for Termination

Can an employer in Texas still fire someone for smoking pot? For once, my lawyerly answer does not have to be “maybe”. Yes, you can fire an employee for testing positive for marijuana.

Unlike Colorado, Washington state, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., the Lone Star State still treats the recreational use of marijuana as illegal. It is also illegal to buy, sell, grow or even possess pot in Texas, so going to Colorado to buy it and then bringing it back to Texas is not an option.

If your written substance abuse policy tells your employees that you prohibit “illegal drugs”, then you have the right to enforce that policy regardless of whether the pot is illegal under federal, state or local laws.

Therefore, a Texas employer can still require a drug test of an applicant, a current employee, an employee involved in an accident or when the employer has a reasonable suspicion of drug use. If the test shows that the employee has used marijuana, the employer can discipline or fire the employee for violation of the company substance abuse policy.

But what if the employee claims that he is smoking pot for medicinal reasons? Continue reading Pot Smoking Still Grounds for Termination