Legal Guidance and Services Needed at Every Business

Updated: July 10, 2010

Harassment, Discrimination, and Retaliation Prevention

Supervisors and managers must be able to recognize protected individuals and respond to various requests for accommodation.

A company must also be able to successfully prevent harassment, discrimination, and retaliation in the workplace. Keep in mind, the median award for harassment, discrimination, and retaliation claims has hit as high as $200,000. When a company loses a harassment or discrimination lawsuit, the resulting judgment may come in both compensatory and punitive form. To avoid paying steep punitive damages, employers must be able to show that they took reasonable steps to prevent the alleged wrongdoing. This includes having an effective policy and giving it to all employees, having a complaint process in place, conducting investigations when complaints are filed, and successfully training all employees with regard to this policy. Policy statements or handbooks are not enough to evidence compliance in the courts; only employers who adopt anti-harassment policies and provide training can legally shield themselves from liability in instances of harassment claims and accusations. To mitigate risk and reduce liability exposure, employers must proactively address all complaints, grievances, and rumors to protect the company from potentially severe financial losses.

Bullying in the workplace is a growing problem. Unfortunately, many managers do not know how to spot or handle bullying, and many otherwise competent employees do not know how to avoid victimization in this bullying epidemic. It is important for companies to legally define and outline bullying for the safety of their employees, in order to maintain a productive, happy, and bully-free environment.

To encourage this diverse and legally compliant work environment, employees must adhere to the rules and expectations of respectful behavior, overcoming conflict, reducing bias, and promoting cooperation.

Businesses must also prevent harassment and discrimination amongst employees. Oftentimes, employees allow their blind ignorance or confusion with regard to proper conduct create a legal liability risk to the company at large. Introducing employees to the equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws may help them identify the difference between legal discrimination and an illegal "hostile environment," thereby promoting appropriate behavior and reducing potential harassment claims. Training all employees can help businesses reduce the overall quantity of claims, assert legitimate defenses to claims, and avoid expensive claims for punitive damages; however, employers must also show a good faith effort to always comply with the law.

Violence Prevention

Legally, companies have an obligation to recognize potential "hostile work environments" and stop inappropriate behavior before trouble results. Companies have various legal duties to protect and prevent violence, or the risk of violence, in the workplace. These risks come from both work and non-work related sources, including but not limited to robbery and disgruntled former employees. Supervisors and managers cannot ignore these potential conflicts, and must be prepared to recognize the threat of violence and reduce this conflict or stress in order to defuse potentially dangerous situations. Companies must take all reasonable legal precautions to reduce the likelihood of injury, or claims of injury.

Employees must be made aware of their personal obligation to recognize and prevent workplace violence as well. Beyond the rare crazed co-worker, the greater threats to workplace safety are aggressive customers and criminals. Instilling in employees the knowledge of what they are legally allowed to do to protect themselves, and other employees, is the key to an effective and quick response to danger.

State and Federal Employment Law

Many employers also risk losing millions of dollars to lawsuits due to an ignorance of state and federal employment laws. Each year, state and federal legislatures enact and revise hundreds of new laws, the courts decide thousands of cases, and government agencies amend numerous rules; utilizing an experienced legal mind is best to wade through the tangled web of information applicable to your company and its compliance. Ultimately, supervisors and managers must make certain that all important laws and regulations are fully utilized in everyday operations. Generally speaking, supervisors and managers need a complete understanding of employment law, legal obligations, and organizational rules. Supervisors and managers need to be knowledgeable with regard to scheduling, compensating, disciplining, and terminating employees. In fact, termination of employees is often believed to be the most complicated and delicate task facing those in managerial roles, as they must negotiate several legal and psychological complexities, and simultaneously avoid common firing mistakes that could ultimately lead to unanticipated legal liability. Employers must adhere to the rules regarding their right to terminate, and the appropriate language to be utilized during the actual termination, in order to prevent claims for wrongful discharge.

Additionally, the hiring process can expose companies to liability. Legal guidance can help employers properly screen and interview candidates. In fact, should a company end up hiring an incompetent individual, although this could have been due to a misleading resume or interview, that company could risk liability and claims for negligent hiring. On the other hand, there are interview questions an interviewer cannot legally ask, and inappropriate tests, conditions, and investigations that violate the law or an applicant's privacy.

Employees must also have a working knowledge of the various codes of conduct applicable to their company's particular industry. In some instances, these codes, laws, and regulations apply to the principles and values of ethical business practices, such as the SEC regulations. In this case, employees must at all times apply ethical decision-making to their business practices, thereby avoiding serious violations of law. In the healthcare industry, all staff must be trained in the facets of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which protects the privacy of patients' health care information. Moreover, with the further growth of electronic recordkeeping, new regulations are being enacted to identify, avoid, prevent, and respond to more high-tech breaches of privacy and security within the healthcare industry. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), often applied to construction-type jobs, specifies that each employer must train employees to recognize and avoid hazards in the workplace; and both state and federal laws require companies to provide employees with safe and healthy workplaces. OSHA also requires all employees who may reasonably have occupational exposure to blood or other potentially infectious materials to be fully apprised of how pathogens are transmitted, how to minimize risk of exposure, and how to handle contaminated items. The increasing cost of workers' compensation claims emphasizes the need for all companies to mandate safety training, including identifying sources and serious consequences of workplace hazards and practical methods to mitigate risks, in order to prevent injuries and illnesses on the job site.

Human Resources Obligations

There are many laws and regulations covering areas such as wages, hours, overtime, classification of employees, and breaks, amongst other human resources obligations, that may not be properly utilized by a company, and could come back to haunt it in a legal forum. There are also various state and federal laws that give employees a right to time off from work, as well as a right to reinstatement, for a myriad of reasons. Supervisors and managers also have the duty to identify and respect employee leave rights, avoid retaliation, and prevent liability related to absenteeism and attendance.

Special Legal Obligations

Reporting Child Abuse: All 50 states have laws protecting children, which establish a legal duty to report abuse on certain occupations that regularly come into contact with children. There are also serious penalties for failing to make a report. Applicable employees must learn how adults should respond to any and all suspicions of abuse, as well as practical suggestions for reducing the risk of child abuse.

Elder Financial Abuse: Designated officers and employees of all financial institutions must take appropriate steps to protect elder and dependent adults, thereby reducing the risk of fines and lawsuits against their respective institutions. They must be made fully aware of scams and schemes targeting elders and their assets, as well as behavior patterns representative of financial abuse. Responsible employees must also know how, when, and where to report.

Identity Theft: Employees in the financial sector must learn how to detect the warning signs of identity theft, in compliance with the Federal Trade Commission's Red Flags Rule. They must have the knowledge to detect, deter, and defend against identity theft fraud.

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