The secretary’s voice beckons you to the reception area – there is a man with some papers for you. You tentatively greet the stranger who then hands you a stack of paperwork including a summons and legal complaint against your company. The complaint outlines a series of alleged missteps taken by your company related to the recent firing of a disruptive employee. Now you are looking down the barrel of a half-million-dollar lawsuit, not to mention the countless thousands of additional dollars needed for legal fees.
How could this have been avoided? What could have been done in the days and weeks prior to the termination of the troublesome employee to reduce the risk of litigation? There is no silver bullet that can completely prevent the dilemma presented, but there are things that a company can, and certainly should do to minimize the chances of litigation and to limit the company’s exposure to damages in a suit filed by an aggrieved or former employee.
At the core of every company is a standard philosophy; a strategic method to follow while conducting business. These procedures should be laid out in the employee handbook. A poorly written, or worse yet, complete absence of an employee handbook is a time-bomb waiting to explode. All too often companies have fallen victim to costly lawsuits regarding the failure, or perceived failure, to follow employee handbook policies. Other times, companies are sued because an aggrieved employee believes he or she was not treated fairly and that there was no corporate guidance – that is, there was no set of defined rules to outline performance expectations. Do not fall victim to this trap in your business. Having a carefully crafted handbook to meet legal requirements and definitions is essential to the long-term success of any business. The handbook should be viewed in a sense as the “Bible” of the business.
While developing an employee handbook, it is imperative to have self-awareness regarding any liabilities the company may face in the present, as well as the future. The main goal of the employee handbook is to establish company policies and goals to ensure legal protection – of both management and employees. The employee handbook serves in essence as a physical piece of insurance which the company can rely on in the present and in the future should a lawsuit occur. Business owners should invest in a legal professional who is aware of federal and state regulations. Further, they should be cognizant of any special requirements specific to their particular industry, such as the myriad requirements for HIPAA compliance in the medical field.
Finding the proper balance between employee rights and management discretion is an essential part of the employee handbook. Once again, consider a worst case scenario when deciding on tone and language. It is tempting to try to cover all your bases by anticipating future areas of liability, but the priority should be properly spelling out guidelines and practices of the business. Focus on the basics and be sure to carefully word the handbook to maintain management latitude and flexibility depending on the matter involved. This is especially beneficial when adjusting the severity of discipline to the variable circumstances of workplace misconduct; however, it is important to establish baseline procedures to minimize an allegation of disparate or discriminatory treatment.
In the constantly changing nature of business, your employee handbook should evolve with the times as well. At the very least, an annual review of the employee handbook should be included by management in every business. Consistent review of the employee handbook should include keeping up to date with any important federal or state regulations pertinent to your business practices and training your managers accordingly. A legal professional will be aware of the changes to the legal landscape, which are essential to keep up to date with in your handbook. Lastly, receipt of the employee handbook should be documented for each individual employee, including when any changes or updates are made.
Navigating the business world is complicated enough without the risk of a lawsuit, but employment attorneys like Boreale Law are here to help you find your way!