Snakes and planes and employees and lawsuits… oh my! If you are responsible for a business that consists of more than just yourself (and seriously, if it’s just you, how do you have time to read this article?), then the vast legal and level-headed wisdom of Samuel L. Jackson (not to be confused with Laurence Fishburne) might just save you a few headaches
and nightmares of evil, soulless attorneys slowly draining your life through your wallet. But before we go too far down the rabbit hole (Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland references in the opening paragraph – nice), let’s get one bit of advice out of the way: No matter how peeved you are with a particular employee, quoting Mr. Jackson in any email you send to or about that employee is probably not a good idea (except for quotes from Pulp Fiction – those are all pre-approved). You’d be surprised how many lawsuits are won based on dumb/angry emails sent by an upset supervisor. Remember – think murderous thoughts, don’t memorialize them.
So what do you need to worry about when it comes to employees? EVERYTHING! They are evil, cannot be trusted, and exist solely to put you in an early grave (wait – were we talking about your employees or your attorneys?). Truthfully, there is a lot to discuss, but only so much can be said in one article. For purposes of today, let’s focus (I say “let’s” as if you have a choice… behold the ultimate power of the writer) on common stuff your employees might sue you for and what you
can should be doing to avoid such lawsuits. I know what you’re thinking – “I’m awesome” (wait, is that you the reader is awesome or are you thinking I’m awesome?) and therefore my employees would never sue me. Good luck with that.
Lindsay Lohan once famously said that you can’t please all the people all the time (she may have been high at the time, so take that advice with a grain of salt). No matter how awesome you are (to avoid confusion, let’s just agree that you and I are equally awesome), the risk of employee lawsuits will always be there. You (hopefully) already know that discriminating on the basis of age, race, gender, ethnicity, etc. is a big no-no (the hyper-technical legal terminology) when it comes to hiring, firing, and promotion decisions. You also (I’m putting my faith in you here) already know that harassment – whether sexual or otherwise – could result in quite the boo-boo (financial, not Honey Boo-Boo) for your company. These mandates should be fairly obvious (in case you fell asleep – don’t discriminate against and don’t harass your employees), so I’d rather focus my efforts on how to avoid these lawsuits in the first place than explaining the legal technicalities of when you’re actually facing one (though, if you’re really
depraved brave, I could certainly spend hours boring you with the intricate details and nuances of the legal requirements for proving and defending such claims… yawn).
Now that you’ve declared your workplace a discrimination free zone, what more should you be doing to lessen the risk of litigation? I’m glad you asked (wait, is DeSouza talking to himself again?). Here’s an easy one – what do you do with the résumés, cover letters, and other documents associated with your applicants/interviewees (whether they get the job or not)? If you’re tossing them in the trash, do you think that’s a good idea? What happens when an applicant sues you six months from now because you ‘allegedly’ discriminated against her on the basis of gender? Which is more credible – your testimony that you don’t discriminate or the stack of résumés from equally qualified male candidates that also did not get the job? No offense to you, but personally I’ll take paper over person any day (now if we’re playing rock, paper, scissors – rock all the way). Whether we’re talking résumés, memos, emails, etc., the decision of what you keep vs. what you trash is one that you should give careful thought to.
Question: Do you need an employee policy manual? Answer:
Don’t make me smack you. That would seem to be wise. It doesn’t matter whether you have 5 employees or 5,000 – you need written policies governing the conduct of your employees. At a minimum, the manual should set forth your anti-discrimination policy, anti-harassment policy, how discrimination and harassment are dealt with/investigated, how and when employees are paid, how vacation time is calculated, dress code, fraternization policy, benefits, computer use policies, etc. Every employee should have a copy of the policy and you should have signatures from every employee upon receipt of the policy.
Of course, having a robust policy manual is somewhat of a double-edged sword (I’ve never understood how twice the slicing action could somehow be a bad thing). That is because having a policy, but not actually following it, might be worse for you than just not having a policy to begin with. Trust me when I say it’s not going to be a comfortable experience being grilled at a deposition on why you didn’t follow your 30-step reporting/investigation process for harassment claims. I suspect the Miami Dolphins recently learned this lesson in painful fashion. Know your policy and follow it – common sense advice that shouldn’t need to be said, but you’d be surprised how often it is ignored to an organization’s peril.
It goes without saying (and yet here I am saying it) that a policy is only as good as the employees/managers following it. It’s one thing for you to proclaim from high atop Mt. Olympus (don’t lie – you’ve sat in your office and pictured yourself as Zeus striking down your enemies with lightning – or is that just me?) that employees should not commit harassment – it’s an entirely different thing to ensure that your commands are followed. How this is accomplished will depend on your demeanor, the office environment, and the size of the employee pool (note: having a swimming pool for employees opens up a whole new liability discussion).
The bottom line here is consistency and diligence – hold regular meetings, observe employee interactions around the workplace, and
interrogate talk to employees about their experiences. If there’s a problem, it’s better to know now than six months from now when you are served with a complaint. If that problem is a particular employee/manager, do me this favor – fire him (in accordance with your well-established policies) as opposed to publicly high-fiving him and sending an office-all email congratulating him on his latest intern sexual conquest. My blood pressure will thank you later.
Oh and just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last 8 years and can’t figure out what the “[CENSORED]” refers to in the title, your friendly TV censors are here to clear things up for you. If you ever find yourself facing down monkey fighting snakes on a Monday to Friday plane, Sam Jackson is your man.