By Angela M. Ward, Attorney
As a business owner, you face many potential legal pitfalls, but with the help of a qualified attorney, many of them are avoidable. A business attorney can protect you by making sure you see the legal ramifications of your business decisions, helping you to draft sound bylaws, contracts, and agreements, and guiding you should a legal issue arise.
If you are thinking of starting a big or small business in Lancaster County, an experienced lawyer can not only help you choose the right business structure, such as a limited liability corporation or a general partnership, but they can also help you secure other necessities like EIN tax numbers and company seals.
Perhaps most importantly, a business lawyer can help you avoid common mistakes that may result in costly legal battles. Here are a few common focus areas we recommend for Lancaster County businesses.
Avoid Employee Issues With a Well-Written Employee Handbook
It may seem like a small thing, but crafting a concise, well-written employee handbook is one of the most important steps you can take to protect your business from legal problems now and in the future. An employee handbook can map out a host of company policies that might otherwise result in legal disputes. Handbooks are often cited in legal actions and should be viewed as legal documents.
The most basic employee handbook should include information about probation periods, employee health benefits, hours of work, payday schedules, overtime policy, dress code, paid time off, and attendance expectations, as well as the use of personal phones and social media.
Other points to include in your employee handbook are policies on jury duty, military leave, and unpaid leaves of absence, employee safety, discrimination and harassment policies, the process for addressing grievances, disciplinary guidelines, and termination procedures.
Pennsylvania is an at-will state, meaning employers generally can terminate employees at any time, and employees can quit at any time, without fear of legal liability. However, a poorly written employee handbook, or the absence of a handbook altogether, may make it easier for an employee to establish a case for wrongful termination.
Contact Going and Plank for help in reviewing your existing employee handbook or crafting a new one that can stand up in court and offer a measure of protection against legal action.
Even the best employee handbook will not fully guarantee protection, but well-written policies are often an important defense should a legal issue arise.
Avoid Claims Against Employers Claims of Discrimination
Numerous federal and state laws offer protection against employment discrimination based on a host of factors, including race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, political affiliation, pregnancy, and caregiving responsibilities. The law explicitly prohibits discrimination in hiring, firing, failure to promote and failure to protect from harassment by co-workers or supervisors.
Protect yourself and your business from claims of discrimination by ensuring that all managers and employees are familiar with Equal Employment Opportunity laws and by creating a professional and inclusive environment that fosters open communication.
In terms of recruitment, hiring, and promotion, be sure to establish neutral and objective criteria in order to avoid subjective employment decisions. The Law Offices of Going and Plank can guide you in developing sound recruiting and hiring practices that not only comply with EEO laws but also help you find and retain good employees. Contact us today.
Claims of Defamation
Defamation occurs when a false statement, presented as fact, harms the reputation of another person. Defamatory statements are considered slander if they are spoken and libel if they are made in writing. Workplace defamation claims are most commonly brought against an employer by a former employee who believes a false reference or statement about his performance hurt the employee’s chances of getting another job.
The best way to avoid a defamation claim is to always be truthful. Never make a statement about an employee or former employee that you could not substantiate if sued. Never exaggerate an employee’s misconduct or disclose information or suspicions about an employee to those who do not have a legitimate business interest.
Claims of Hostile Work Environment
A hostile work environment occurs when unwelcome or offensive behavior makes one or more employees feel uncomfortable, frightened or intimidated, affecting their ability to do their job. While many factors can create an unpleasant work environment, from a grumpy boss to an annoying co-worker, most do not rise to the legal definition of hostile. In order to be considered hostile, the behavior must be discriminatory, pervasive, long-lasting, and such that a reasonable person would find it offensive.
A well-written, thorough anti-harassment policy is the best defense against a hostile work environment. Employers should make sure the policy is well communicated and that a procedure is in place for filing a complaint. They should also investigate any complaint promptly and take appropriate action when necessary.
Claims of Harassment
Workplace harassment occurs when an employee suffers from unwanted conduct because of a trait protected by state or federal anti-discrimination law, such as sex, religion or national origin.
It could be anything from verbal comments, such as racial slurs, inappropriate jokes or comments about an employee’s body, to physical abuse in the form of groping or hitting.
To prevent harassment claims, contact Going and Plank to ensure your employee handbook includes a clearly written policy that explicitly defines harassment according to federal, state, and local law. The policy should also include your company’s position on harassment, along with the procedure for reporting, investigating and resolving such claims.
Claims of Invasion of Privacy
In some respects, employees have a very limited right to privacy in the workplace, especially in the age of internet and social media. As an employer, you typically have the right to search through anything on a company computer, including internet usage and email communications. However, there are some instances where an employee has a legitimate expectation of privacy, such as dressing rooms or restrooms.
Claims of Retaliation
If you or someone who works for you takes action against an employee because they filed a complaint about harassment or discrimination, that employee may have grounds to win a retaliation claim. Under Equal Employment Opportunity laws, participating in a complaint process, whether as a complainant or a witness, is protected from retaliation under all circumstances.
Any adverse action, such as a demotion, salary reduction, job reassignment or poor evaluation, can be viewed as punishment for making a complaint. You can avoid such claims by establishing a clear policy against retaliation, always disciplining employees consistently, and keeping all complaints as confidential as possible. That does not mean you do not have the right to discipline or discharge such an employee now or in the future for legitimate reasons unrelated to their participation in a complaint. Thorough documentation is crucial in such cases. Contact the Law Offices of Going and Plank for help in drafting an anti-retaliation policy. We can also offer sound legal advice on issues of employee discipline.
Even the best businesses can encounter legal problems, but an experienced business attorney can ensure you are complying with employment laws, minimize the risk of legal action, and defend you should legal issues arise. Contact Going and Plank today.
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