By Paula Brantner, Guest Columnist
Q: I was a manager at a small company for many years. This company had a couple of lawsuits filed by disgruntled employees. Now I am in the process of establishing my own business. How can I prevent lawsuits by employees?
A: You can’t. Our legal system allows individuals to file lawsuits, meeting a fairly minimal threshold, when they believe they have been wronged. And while employers may and often do ultimately prevail, even winning can represent a significant expense to your company – one that most would prefer to avoid if at all possible.
While it’s not possible to completely eliminate all lawsuits by employees, there are a few things employers can do to reduce their numbers, which will pay dividends not only financially, but also in terms of morale, productivity and corporate image.
Follow the Law
While that may be an obvious admonition, it still trips up far too many. Ignorance of the law is no defense, and it certainly isn’t bliss. For even the smallest employer, having a lawyer or HR expert review your company’s hiring and compensation practices, as well as your personnel policies, is likely to cost far less than even one lawsuit. While there still may be gray areas where you later end up on the wrong side of the law, you can eliminate many of the most obvious violations without too much difficulty or expense.
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
We all know that people are human, and that in most cases there is latitude to be more flexible when addressing employee shortcomings. When an employee is punished for a minor infraction, is the problem that the work is not getting done, or that the rule is being broken? If it’s just the latter, then you may want to rethink your disciplinary practices, or instruct your supervisors to lighten up. When you give an inch, you’ll find that most employees will go the extra mile.
Honor Your Promises
When you make a promise, your employees should be able to count on it. Whether it concerns salary, training, advancement potential, retirement and pension benefits or their ability to avoid layoffs, your employees expect you to communicate honestly and keep your promises. When that doesn’t happen, the response may be, “See you in court.”
Follow the Golden Rule
Even if you’re now the owner or a member of the leadership team, you probably were an employee once. Never forget how you were treated when you were an employee, and use that as a lesson (whether good or bad) about how you treat your employees. Ensure that your employees know that verbal abuse, threats, sabotage and bullying of any kind will not be tolerated. Employees treated with honesty, dignity and respect are much more likely to return the favor – to their coworkers and to their employers.
Allow Graceful and Dignified Exits
Not every employee works out – terminations are just a fact of life. Although the law in most employment settings is “employment-at-will,” when employees perceive their termination as unfair and irrational, it becomes much more likely that they will consider a lawsuit. Clearly articulating your expectations, giving adequate notice of performance deficiencies, using progressive discipline and being honest about the reasons when termination is the only option will make a difference in how employees view their termination. It should be a rarity, not the norm, when you immediately escort terminated employees off the premises, or make it difficult for them to find new employment.
While following these principles does not mean that you will never have a lawsuit filed against your organization, failure to heed them makes it much more likely that you will one day face the aggravation and expense of defending a lawsuit.
Paula Brantner, Program Director of Workplace Fairness, has worked as an attorney in the area of employment discrimination and civil rights law for over 13 years. Founded in 1994 as the National Employee Rights Institute, Workplace Fairness is a nonprofit organization that provides information, education and assistance to individual workers and their advocates nationwide and promotes public policies that advance employee rights.