So let’s talk a little bit about one of the top issues an employer might be sued over from an employee. We also aren’t going to go into great detail with this issue; but it’s an important thing to know. Companies have been brought to their knees by not preparing for the possibility that they could be sued by an employee.
How Employees Are Treated
First, and probably the most common situation we see is when an employee might sue based on the treatment that he or she received by another person in the company.
So these are mostly seen with situations that involve sexual harassment, physical harassment, mental, emotional or verbal abuse. It’s often the case that how your employees behave, or in a lot of cases how your contractors behave, will be linked back to you.
If you are not taking the time each year to properly train your employees and contractors; have the proper procedures in place to educate them on the standards that you have as an employer, as well as your public outfacing position on harassment, sexual or otherwise, then you exposing yourself to the risks.
These training sessions need to be pretty detailed. Organizing the ethics and personal conduct you expect within your business should be a top priority if you are considering hiring. Establish the do’s and don’ts of how your people engage with one another. What is appropriate and what is not appropriate and go into detail as to why these things are not appropriate.
Cover sexual harassment, work expectations, dress code, and dealing with suppliers or contractors. Know where risk exists and take steps to protect your business with these trainings.
Bringing on an HR team to help in this area can be a big help, but if you are a small business then consider using a 3rd party company to help in the meantime. See this as an investment in the protection of your company. Starting an HR department can be a big help in making sure that you are having those communications regularly and following through on those expectations.
What if my business is completely online?
A lot of businesses, since the pandemic, have moved to a more remote type system. While this might seem like there are less chances for inappropriate conduct, you must still be aware of the dangers and take proper steps. Now that you are working in a digital environment, provide training on how to properly communicate using your chosen channels; emails, social media, Slack, Teams, or any other means of communication.
Provide Physical Accommodations
Another thing that comes to mind as far as risks you need to be aware of is to make sure you are providing adequate accommodations for any employees that fall under a protected class.
For instance, if you have an employee with a disability where they are confined to a wheelchair and your office wheelchair accessible, then you are at risk.
You could’ve taken steps to provide those accommodations but you didn’t. This might seem like a tough issue to cover but the simplest way to look at it is this; if it is reasonable that you could accommodate that, then do what is necessary. Make the changes for these workers.
If you are not providing the proper accommodations to an employee who has expressed their need for an accommodation, that is another way that you can get sued.
It doesn’t necessarily have to always involve an individual with a disability either. If a worker’s job requires them to lift heavy materials or products and they injured their wrist, have alternate work that would allow them to continue to be productive without putting additional strain on them.
I know of a company that has hired several hearing impaired individuals. This company has also hired interpreters who are available to each of these individuals and their teams so they can effectively communicate. The company has also provided optional training in American Sign Language (ASL) for staff and incentivized workers to learn how to communicate better.
Doing things as a business to try to help those who may need accommodation, when done within reason, will always be beneficial. This is not to speak ill of people who need accommodation. If you’re a company and you’re big enough, you can put in a little bit of extra work to make sure that everybody’s taken care of.
How Much Training Do I Need To Provide?
A question that often comes up from business owners is just how much training do they need to provide. The idea is that they can’t afford to have their people in these hours-long training sessions several times a year. They obviously don’t want their employees to be harassed in the workplace but they have deadlines or quotas to meet.
Will a 10 minute training video suffice, or do I need to provide a multi-day workshop?
What is the expectation?
Usually it’s in these sorts of situations where an employee is claiming that someone has harassed them in the workplace. Part of the investigation is an audit of what the company does to educate and train its people.
Just showing that you’ve done something, whether it’s a short video that you require everyone to watch, or a policy that you have you review annually and have your workers sign. That would be considered the bare minimum.
However, reminding your employees regularly of these policies can be a powerful tool in keeping your workplace free from inappropriate conduct. Maybe incorporate a quarterly report that lets everyone know that there were no incidents this last quarter.
If you can afford to do more, though, you should do it.
Case Study: Enron [source]
One of the more well known disasters in the business realm had to do with the collapse of Enron which encapsulated the idea of espousing virtue and morality, but were the exact opposite behind closed doors.
Enron was considered the “Darling of Wall Street” because it presented the market with a face of high ethics, solid principles, and incredible growth. In 1996 Enron reported earnings of $13.2 billion, which increased year-over-year to the year 2000 when they reported $100.8 billion in earnings.
Enron had pages upon pages of documentation that touted their moral platitudes, their virtue, and all the wonderful things they did.
Now, the downfall of a large corporation can’t be linked to a single failing, Enron is no different. However it certainly didn’t help that they presented such a virtuous front when behind the public eye they engaged in such illegal and deceptive practices.
We live in a day and age that it is essential for a business to be successful you must operate in the best possible manner. Providing proper training for your people in their interactions, doing anything you can to button up areas that could potentially cause harm, and operating ethically and morally right ways is the best way to keep your business from being sued.
It may not be entirely necessary to hire on some sort of compliance function or team within your company to make sure people are following the rules that are in place. Especially if you can’t afford it. But make sure you are following the rules set forth by your policies and practices.
Consider building these policies with the help of a legal team that has your company’s best interest in mind.
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