Avoiding hot water: HR professional share tips on legal issues

Patti Roberts
Patti Roberts

What must small business owners and managers get right to keep their companies out of legal hot water?

A lot of things, according to members of the Western Colorado Human Resource Association — everything from staying on top of wage and hour regulations to implementing the right hiring and firing procedures to properly training employees.

Asked to list specific HR issues critical to businesses, WCHRA members came up with five suggestions:

To become knowledgeable and remain up to date on federal and state wage and hour and worker’s compensation regulations. It’s essential to know and follow the law in paying employees correctly and dealing with every employee in a consistent manner.

Hire and fire employees legally. To do it right, owners and managers should assess their needs, define job requirements and standardize application documents. In addition, owners and managers should ask job-related interview questions, check references and verify application information. It’s also important to take time to properly document performance issues prior to considering termination. Owners and managers should be deliberate and timely: Retaining a poor performer can damage a business as well as the morale of productive employees. 

Enforce policies consistently. Consider this example of an e-mail sent to the HR staff from a hiring manager: “I hired Peggy Sue last week. She doesn’t have her I-9 documentation. She said it was OK if she didn’t get paid for a while.” Educate hiring mangers about required documents and timelines. Make sure payroll procedures are clear, legal and enforced for every hire.

Train employees properly. While every owner and manager would like to hire self-starters that hit the ground running, that isn’t always possible or even advisable.  Make sure new employees understand their job duties and how things are done.

Maintain a “friendly” work place. Employees are entitled to a workplace with no bullying, vulgarity or harassment. Communicate company policies and philosophies clearly and often and then back them up with appropriate action when necessary.   

Why do small business owners and managers need to know this stuff? To reduce risk of liability and limit exposure to potential penalties and lawsuits. A lawsuit could be devastating to a small business. And in some cases, owners and managers can be held personally liable.

Moreover, it’s important for business owners and managers to create and foster supportive, compliant workplaces where people want to work and actively participate in fulfilling the company mission and achieving company goals.

So how can business owners and managers who aren’t human resource professionals stay on top of things? Once again, WCHRA members offer some suggestions:

Contract with an HR consultant, payroll provider, insurance broker, employee assistance program provider, accountant and attorney. The Mountain States Employers Council (MSEC) also offers a great resource. An HR consultant can help establish policies and procedures as well as write an employee handbook. 

Take advantage of online resources. Visit the Labor Department Web site at www.dol.gov for information about federal regulations. The Society for Human Resource Management Web site at www.shrm.org also offers important information.

Join a professional association for your industry.

Attend WCHRA meetings. The group is open to all who want to learn about HR issues and meet colleagues. Each month, a luncheon program covers timely and important topics. Visit the Web site at www.wchra.org to obtain information about meetings or becoming a member.

Patti Roberts is vice president of human resources for First National Bank of the Rockies based in Grand Junction. Linda Davidson operates a business coaching business. Roberts and Davidson also belong to the Western Colorado Human Resource Association.