One of the best ways to reduce risk of lawsuits is to apply the “golden rule” at work, with the understanding that there is still a hierarchy regarding decisionmaking. Most employees calling lawyers have not necessarily been treated illegally but have been treated unfairly, rudely, or insensitively, or have been bullied by a manager who can’t handle the power of the position.
Solution? Train your managers. It not only helps reduce the entity’s risk but also the manager’s. Some laws allow claims to be brought directly against the individuals involved, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act and the federal Family Medical Leave Act.
What do they need for training? They need training on documentation, knowing the policies, how to handle complaints, how to deal with difficult employees (without making it personal), what the laws are, how to handle requests for accommodations under the disability laws, and how to deal with terminations (which includes not acting on impulse).
They also need training on focusing on job duties as opposed to health and physical issues. At work, there needs to be a solid boundary between medical information and doing one’s job. The mantra is that a manager should never “play doctor.” So, if an employee is acting out at work and experiencing enormous mood swings, the conversation shouldn’t be along the lines of “You really should see a therapist for this to see if that helps” but, “look, I’m not sure what is going on but you need to figure out how you are going to work as a team here and lashing out at co-workers is not acceptable.”
A manager shouldn’t make negative comments about an employee taking time off for medical appointments or treatments either. Those comments often come back to haunt a company when it later comes across a non-discriminatory reason to let the employee go. For example, if you need to let that employee go in a layoff, those comments may be what the employee focuses on as opposed to the fact that the position needed to be eliminated. Those comments may be used to provide an explanation as to why they were targeted for lay off and not some other employee. Moreover, the negative comments could be viewed as retaliation if the employee is entitled to the time off under the FMLA or under the reasonable accommodation portion of the ADA and MHRC. The focus should be kept on job performance and compliance with company rules. If an issue is medical or health related, train managers to bring it to HR to discuss the potential minefields and how to manage the situation, including how to reduce any risk involved.
This article is not legal advice but should be considered as general guidance in the area of employment and corporate law. Rebecca Webber is an employment attorney; others at the firm handle business and other matters. You can contact us at (207) 784-3200. Skelton Taintor & Abbott is a full service law firm providing legal services to individuals, companies, and municipalities throughout Maine. It has been in operation since its founding in 1853.