The top 10 ways to avoid human resources claims

Those who work in human resources or manage employees know that every situation is different and that few things are simple when dealing with human nature and the livelihoods and careers of others. There are, however, 10 basic principles business owners can follow to minimize risk and maximize employer and employee satisfaction.

10. Update your employee handbook: Make sure your employee handbook is updated annually to confirm that your policies are still in compliance with state and federal law as well as the changing practical aspects of the workplace. Your handbook and actual practice must be consistent.

9. Review and update job descriptions: The job description sets clear expectations for employee performance throughout the employment relationship and should serve as the bar for measuring performance in appraisals. In light of recent amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act concerning classifications of exempt employees, it is critical that all aspects of the employees’ job be documented in writing. Well-documented job descriptions are the top-line qualifiers for a company in the event of an employee’s claim for a medical leave or accommodation for disability.

8. Conduct a self-audit of personnel files: Both the state and federal Departments of Labor have the authority to conduct audits of payroll records and employee files. If you do not have a checklist of every item that is required to be in an employee’s personnel file, consult your lawyer. Comprehensive record-keeping practices are always the company’s best defense against future claims by employees and civil penalties.

7. Provide harassment training and update your policy: Recent case law suggests that simply having employees read the policy or view a video on harassment is insufficient. An employer must demonstrate a sincere commitment to providing a workplace free of harassment through live training sessions, led by your own human resources professional, an outside consultant or an attorney.

6. Adopt a clear policy regarding use of electronic information and data retention: To keep up with rapidly advancing technology, employee policies must set forth the employer’s expectation with regard to the use of employer-provided electronic systems, including computer, voice mail, e-mail and Internet, but should also extend to the employee’s use of personal consumer electronics, such as cell phones, camera phones and recording devices while on the job.

If your company does not have a preparedness plan to deal with data retention, accompanied by clear policies and procedures for employees to follow to prepare the company for inevitable litigation, make this a top priority for 2006.

5. Determine whether your noncompetition agreements are still enforceable: In May 2005 the New Hampshire Supreme Court handed down the decision of Merrimack Valley Wood Products v. Near, which changes the state of the law on this issue. Consult with your attorney on how this case affects the enforceability of current agreements and changes that you should make going forward.

4. Consider offering an employee assistance program: An employee assistance program is a relatively inexpensive benefit that can help employees manage issues before they become legal liabilities. Basic plans include workplace seminars on matters such as stress reduction and nutrition and referrals for personal services such as counseling and day care. Better programs offer mediation and conflict resolution. All help prevent issues from escalating and improve employee morale.

3. Put a system in place for receiving updates on changes in the law: At the very least, your human resources professional should be tied in to local and national organizations that provide regular updates on employment law issues of interest. Professional organizations such as the Society for Human Resource Management and administrative agencies, like the New Hampshire Department of Labor and federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, have informative Web sites — and some provide periodic e-mail updates as well. Your best bet is to attend live training sessions in your area – they offer the opportunity to ask professionals about how the rules apply specifically to your business or situation.

2. Determine whether your company’s human resources needs are being met by current staff: Who has responsibility for managing human resources in your workplace? Is this person conversant in state and federal wage and hour, discrimination and benefits law? If you do not know or are not comfortable with the answers to these questions, there may be disaster in your future.

And the number one way to avoid human resource claims:

1. Train your managers: Your managers are your front lines. If they do not have at least a basic working understanding of the laws that govern employer/employee relations, they can cause you more problems than you can dream up on your own.

Managers and supervisors should know how to conduct a proper interview to elicit needed information without fear of a discrimination claim, what to do in the event of a complaint of sexual harassment, the importance of keeping accurate records of hours employees work, the laws that govern employees under the age of 18, and many other basic legal principles. The investment in time and money will be well worth it in the extra sleep you get knowing your company is in good hands.

Charla Bizios Stevens is a member of the Employment Law Practice Group at the law firm of McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton, P.A. She can be reached at 603-628-1363 or

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