If you are a Texas employer, you may be wondering whatever happened to the concept of employment at will, where you could hire, discipline and fire an employee for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all. You are worried that the pat on the back that you once gave for encouragement is now considered sexual harassment. You may feel like you are fighting a workplace war and you seem to be losing.
You have good reason to be worried. Jury Verdict Research reports that the median discrimination verdict in the United States was $252,000 in 2007. In 2008, we saw the largest single plaintiff employment law verdict ever–$46.6 million awarded to a supervisor who refused to fire three employees in their 60s and was then fired himself. With the economy in the toilet, more employees will lose their jobs, which always results in an increase of employment litigation for wrongful termination of some sort.
But the business owners and managers that I talk to everyday as an employment lawyer can’t keep up with the new laws and regulations that they have to follow. They understand that the laws are designed to bring fairness and equality to the jobsite, but unless the laws are merged into some kind of simplified and usable form, they find compliance almost impossible.
How can you run your business without spending all your time on employment issues? These are the ten basic principles that you and your managers need to follow to comply with most employment laws and avoid a costly lawsuit:
- If you have 50 or more employees, hire a trained experienced human resources professional to devote his or her time to those frustrating employment issues that arise every day. If you have between 15 and 50 employees or can’t hire a full-time human resources professional, intensively train everyone with supervisory authority to recognize and handle legal employment issues. If you have less than 15 employees, the discrimination laws are not applicable to your company.
- Establish written standards and policies to let your employees know what is expected of them.
- Apply those standards and policies equally and consistently.
- Have your human resources director or employment lawyer review your policies annually to see if they still comply with the quickly changing laws and regulations.
- Build a written record on every employee. Your employees’ personnel files do not have to be pretty, just thick. Throw in a dated, signed note from your scratch pad describing every good and bad experience you have with each employee.
- Communicate with your employees regularly, particularly in writing. Let them know when they are doing a good job and a bad job. Occasionally providing a written “thank you” will do wonders for your employees’ attitudes and performance. Routinely issuing verbal followed by written warnings to poor performers will help you avoid many employment law headaches.
- Keep all of your employment records throughout the worker’s employment and for three years after termination.
- Use performance evaluations to have a formalized record of your employees’ performance, but only if you can resist grading on a curve. An evaluation that is falsely inflated to avoid hurting an employee’s feelings will only hurt your case when it is shown to the jury in that employee’s discrimination suit.
- Think before you speak. The off-color jokes and comments that have been commonplace in many Panhandle workplaces are now the fodder for sexual, racial, religious and other harassment suits.
- The Golden Rule still applies. Treat your employees fairly, as you would like to be treated. You will develop loyal, long-term employees who are less likely to sue and more likely to perform their jobs well.