“I’m not into litigation. I’m into taking preventative measures to keep litigation from happening,” said Lynn Lieber, Esq. during her presentation at last month’s SHRM 2012 Annual Conference and Exposition.
Lieber, a subject matter expert with Austin, Texas-based Workplace Answers, Inc., led the session Five Must-Have Policies: Social Media, Retaliation, Data Protection, Wages and Confidentiality, during which she explained why every organization needs these five policies, how to draft them correctly, and how to communicate these policies to employees.
In discussing these policies, Lieber expressed sympathy for her already overburdened audience of human resources professionals and said she understands why creating and enforcing these five workplace policies might not be high on their priority list. “As HR people, you have arrows coming at you from all directions…and you’ve got to have a lot of people sign off on these policies. This isn’t an easy task,” Lieber told the audience. It is, however, a necessary one.
I recently spoke with Lieber over the phone to get further insight into the importance of these workplace policies (which you can download for free here) – and best practices for implementing them.
During your session, when asked if they had a policy in place, the vast minority of audience members raised their hands to indicate they had most of these policies. Did that surprise you? I was shocked and horrified at how few people had these policies…especially in areas of social media and retaliation, because in retaliation we’re seeing multi-million dollar verdicts, and every single lawsuit filed today that alleges harassment or illegal discrimination of any type has retaliation in it. That should be of huge concern to the C-Levels of the organization, because that’s where you accumulate huge punitive damages. You’re also going to spend tons of money on legal fees, and your organization is going to get bad press from it.
Why do you think so few employers had these policies in place? The difficulty with these policies is, they’re not just time-keeping policies HR can set on their own. These policies involve all areas of the company. The challenge for HR is, number one, to be informed of what they need to do, but then to rally upward why these policies are important, and get buy-in from the upper levels of the company – and, as we all know, that’s like pushing a rock uphill.
What should be the first step HR takes in creating and implementing these policies? The major thing they need to do is probably write memos and emails to various individuals in the chain of command as to knowledge about these areas and what is needed, and probably to involve their legal counsel to assist them in moving up the chain as to why this is imperative from both a financial perspective and reputation perspective.
If employers could implement just one of the five policies, which one should it be? Where should they start? I’d suggest starting with social media, because that bleeds into so many areas. It bleeds into revealing your trade secrets, your confidential information, et cetera. Many employers are doing it, but they’re drafting these overly broad social media policies, which might violate the NLRA. A social media policy has to be very carefully crafted: it has to be restrictive enough so the employer is not giving employees too much license, but it also has to stay within bounds of NLRA.
In addition to overly broad wording, what other pitfalls do employers need to avoid when creating policies? Employers tend to make definitive statements in their policies, such as, “We will do this if this happens,” but you might not want to do that, based on that specific situation. Employers need to give themselves more leeway. They can say it’s in the employer’s discretion to do something, but they might not want to say, “Your supervisor will take the following five steps if a complaint of harassment is filed,” because if the supervisor doesn’t do that, you’re going to then be liable because the supervisor didn’t follow what was basically a contractual agreement with the employee. The wording of the policy is very critical, and legal counsel has to be involved.
What’s best way to communicate these policies to employees and ensure they’re aware of and understand what’s at stake? Get employees to sign off that they understand, acknowledge and abide by these policies. Because what you want to do in any disciplinary action is reference back and specifically state the reason why the employee is being disciplined or terminated – the objective facts. The more you can prove the employee violated the policy, the less likely they’re going to come back and say they were terminated because they were discriminated against or harassed.
[Understanding and enforcing these policies] is a critical part of every supervisor’s job, and supervisors need to be trained not only in these policies, but in how to enforce and administer them, and a big part of that is how to discipline and do performance evaluations regarding these policies.
If people take just one thing away from your presentation, what should it be? I think it should be an awareness of the critical nature of – and immediate need for – policies, and for training in those policies. It really all boils down to knowledge: HR needs knowledge of what to do, the C-Level needs knowledge of these policies and their importance, and the workforce – both employees and, separately, their supervisors – need knowledge of what their rights are and what their responsibilities are.
Tell us: Do you have all of these policies in place at your organization? Why or why not?
And don’t forget to get your free copy of Five Must-Have Policies: Social Media, Retaliation, Data Protection, Wages and Confidentiality