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Human Resources

Human Resources

Human Resources, or “HR,” refers to that department in an organization that manages personnel matters including hiring, compensation, training, disputes, benefits, and firing. Depending on the size and purpose of the business or company, an HR department may be comprised of a few individuals, or it may require the efforts of several different specialists.

Human resources departments play an important role in ensuring efficient operations in any organization. For example, disputes between employees or between an employer and employee are typically resolved through HR. Although the term “human resources” technically describes the employed workforce in general, the terms is most commonly used to refer to the human resources department of a company.

Types of Legal Issues Handled by HR

Human resources often handles many employment disputes that can lead to a legal claim. These may involve every step of the employment process, from hiring up until termination. Some of these legal issues may involve:

  • Discrimination
  • Equal Employment Opportunities
  • Classifications of employees
  • Compensation, including wage rates, pay days, and raises or deductions
  • Overtime policies
  • Meal and break periods
  • Employee benefits
  • Vacation and holiday standards
  • Personal leave and sick days
  • Evaluation of performance
  • Termination and retirement packages

Many workplace disputes end up being resolved through the cooperation of human resources with state or federal agencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  However, if a government agency is unable to resolve the situation, the dispute could quickly lead to a civil lawsuit.

Types of Laws That Cover Human Resources

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Although an entire network of federal and state law covers the duties of human resources, one of the most important and extensive HR laws is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its related amendments. This Act deals primarily with employment discrimination.

Under Title VII, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees or recruits based on certain protected categories, such as religion, race, or national origin. The HR department certainly must abide by anti-discriminatory policies when performing their duties.

Equal Pay Act of 1963: This act requires equal pay for employees who perform equal work, and prohibits wage discrimination based on sex. Human resources often deals extensively with these issues.

Other important laws that regulate human resources practices include:

  • Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970: This law defines safety and health standards in the workplace
  • Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993: This act makes it illegal to fire an employee who takes leave for legitimate purposes
  • Fair Labor Standards Act: This act covers various restrictions on minimum wage, overtime rates, and child labor standards
  • Americans with Disabilities Act: This act regulates employer hiring standards for applicants with disabilities

These are federal regulations which apply in every state. As mentioned above, in addition, a state may have its own employment laws, many of which may be stricter than federal statutes. For instance, California human resources laws may differ in many ways compared to laws in other states.

Human Resources Policies

Human resources policies are the formal guidelines and rules that a business puts in place with regards to the hiring, training, assessment, and rewarding of the organization's employees.

Such policies can serve to prevent many disputes and misunderstandings between the employer and the employees. A well-drafted human resources policy will inform employees of their rights and duties in the workplace.

Human resources (HR) policies are generally contained in the company's employee handbook which is given to all employees when they begin working with the organization. Sometimes the human resources policy may actually form a part of the employment contract between the company and the employee. Therefore, if a workplace dispute is litigated in court, it is usually assumed that the employee has consented to the company's human resources policy

What Is Contained in a Human Resource Policy?

A well-drafted human resources policy should address all the basic interactions between employers and employees, as well those that occur between employees. In addition, the policy should be able to anticipate any possible disputes or legal claims that might arise in connection with workplace issues.

Some issues that the HR policy should contain are:

  • Use and ownership of company resources and products
  • Harassment, discrimination, and other workplace disputes
  • Wages, benefits, overtime pay, and vacation terms
  • Reimbursements for business expenses (such as travel and lodging)
  • Telecommuting policies
  • Retirement and pension plans
  • Substance abuse and drug testing
  • Dress codes
  • Mail, shipping, and fax policies
  • Recreational activities
  • Promotion policies
  • Insurance/medical/dental policies
  • Mechanisms for reporting/resolving disputes

The human resources policy should therefore be very broad so that it encompasses all of the major employment concerns. It should also be tailored to include those provisions that may be unique to the nature of the business involved. For example, if the company involves a shipping business, the policy should emphasize concerns related to transportation and delivery.

It is important that human resources policies be drafted in a way that is clear and easy for employees to understand. Therefore it may be necessary to hire a lawyer to draft the policy according to local business law standards.

Advantages of Having a Human Resources Policy in place

The main advantage of implementing a human resource policy is that it can help prevent costly litigation fees in the future. A human resource policy should create avenues for employees to report any misconduct to superiors. If the company is able to resolve the dispute internally, it could save costs on lawsuits and may also spare the loss of employees.

Unfortunately, many business owners (especially small businesses) may feel that creating a human resources policy is a waste of time and resources. However, a formal policy may ultimately serve to reduce costs in the long run. It may also actually help the business operate more efficiently, especially when the employees integrate the policy standards into their work conduct.

Other benefits of a human resources policy include increased communication in the workplace, reduced management expenses, and a more cooperative work environment.

Should an Employer Establish Disciplinary Policies in the Workplace?

In order to successfully run any form of business, it is important to establish a standardized disciplinary procedure. Every organization must have workplace rules which govern the conduct of their employees.

No matter how professional a workplace is, at some point, workplace rules will be broken. It is essential for a business to have a system established to investigate, process, and discipline employee workplace violations.

There are many benefits of having this type of a system in place, including:

  • Notice;
  • Higher morale and increased productivity; and
  • Limiting legal liability.

When employers have comprehensive disciplinary systems in place, their employees are made aware of what type of conduct is expected in the workplace. They are also notified regarding how any future infractions will be treated.

These systems may result in higher morale and increased productivity because employees will know that their fellow employees who act in a hostile or prohibited manner will not be tolerated by their employer. Employees also know that violations will be disciplined in some way, causing them to feel safer and happier in their work environment.

Having an established uniform disciplinary system will also limit employee resentment for disciplinary actions as well as limit legal liability by avoiding workplace discrimination lawsuits. If all of the employees are punished in the same manner for a certain type of violation, there is a lesser chance that a disciplinary action will be regarded as discriminatory.

How Should an Employer Design Its Disciplinary Policy?

Discriminatory policies are strong communication tools. They should follow certain guidelines in order to ensure that the policies work as they are intended to, including:

  • The disciplinary policy should be attached to a clearly drafted Code of Conduct;
  • Both the disciplinary policy and the code of conduct should be in writing as well as in a
  • location where employees can easily view it. Typical locations include:
    • the kitchen;
    • break room; and
    • employee handbooks;
  • Make presentations to any new employees which explain workplace rules as well as disciplinary policies. Ensure that employees are informed of the penalties which will be imposed for violations of the code of conduct;
  • Do not write the policy in such a way that it could be interpreted as a contract. With disciplinary policies, one risk is that the policies may be written in such a way that may create an implied employment contract, which may negate the at-will work status of the employee;
  • Standardize the steps which are to be taken during the disciplinary process and ensure that those steps are written down. It is important to only include essential steps which will be used in each disciplinary action;
  • Provide for rapid notification to employees of any violations;
  • Provide a process which allows for appeals so that employees have the opportunity to explain the conduct which lead to the violation; and
  • Always include a statement that the disciplinary policy is to be used as a guideline and that the employer reserves the right to modify the policy in any way which may be deemed necessary.

What Should an Employer Do to Avoid Liability When Disciplining an Employee?

There are several basic rules which every employer should follow when disciplining an employee for any prohibited action, including:

  • Privacy. Meetings between employers and employees to discuss discipline should be conducted quietly and discreetly to protect the employee's privacy rights;
  • Communication. An employer should be open and honest with the employee by describing what the employee did that was wrong, why it was wrong, and what the consequences of such behavior will be. The employer should also allow time for the employee to tell their side of the story and defend themselves;
  • Put it in written form. An employer should keep a complete record of every disciplinary meeting and the action taken; and
  • Check up. If an employer requests a change in employee conduct, such as an improvement in productivity, there should be a set deadline to mark the employee's progress.

How Should an Employee Respond to Disciplinary Actions?

For any employee who receives a disciplinary action, it is better to respond rather than to react. It is easy to have a strong negative reaction to a write-up, especially if an employee feels it is in error or that the information was taken out of context.

If an employee wants to challenge a disciplinary action against them, they should do so professionally. When an employee is given a write-up, they should immediately inform their employer that they do not agree with the contents.

The employee should remain calm, share only facts, and be direct with their statements. It may be possible to discuss the issue at that time without formally filing the disciplinary action.

If an individual is feeling emotional about the issue and does not want to discuss it on the spot, it is acceptable to tell the employer that they disagree and that they will be submitting a rebuttal (response) the following day. Prior to submitting a response, it is important for the employee to gather all of the facts and supporting evidence for their case.

It is important for the employee to review emails, calendars, and any other evidence which may support their position and demonstrate that they are not at fault. If possible, the employee should locate any witnesses who may be able to corroborate the employee's side and request that they write a letter of support to accompany the employee's rebuttal.

If this type of write-up is given along with a performance review, it is important not to let generic comments go without being questioned. For example, if an individual's employer states they are “not trying hard enough,” it is important for the employee to request specific examples.

If the employer is not able to provide specific examples, the employee should record that in their response. It is important to provide documentation regarding any accusations of failing to meet expectations of the employer and to address each point and provide evidence, when possible.

In some employment situations, the failure to sign a write-up may lead to more disciplinary action. If an employee disagrees with a disciplinary action, the employee should request a rebuttal or to sign the document and ensure that their signature does not indicate that they agree with the contents.

Should I contact a Lawyer for My Issues With Human Resources?

Dealing with human resources is a necessary part of any employment arrangement. If you have concerns about your organization's human resources department, you should contact an employment attorney for advice. Employment laws can often be intimidating, since the web of laws is so comprehensive. Your attorney can help clarify these laws for you, as many of them are subject to change.  Whether you are an employee, employer, or work in a human resources department, it is important to know your rights.

For the protection of your business and your employees, it is important that you have a comprehensive human resources policy in place. While no one else may know the ins and outs of your business like you do, you may not fully understand the various requirements of the law.

Therefore, you may wish to work in conjunction with an contract lawyer when creating a human resources policy. Your attorney can help you create a policy that caters to the needs of your company and clearly defines the requirements of the law. Your attorney can assist you with drafting and adding provisions as well as helping to protect you from liability.

If you have been disciplined unfairly and in violation of your employer's disciplinary policy, your attorney can help you file a claim for compensatory damages. Your attorney will represent you when you are required to appear in court.

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