For smaller companies, it’s important to find a resource that can function as your HR expert(s). There are several ways to go about getting outside help and it is invaluable because they will review your employee handbook, answer legal questions, and recommend other kinds of outside help when you need it.
There are usually three options for outside help:
- Small outside HR firms that can be contracted for a smaller scope of work.
- An employment attorney who is an expert in your state’s employment laws.
- Some type of coach, counselor, mediator, or other employment professional who can help before a situation escalates to the attorney level.
The latter type of help can be invaluable because it can be difficult to determine which stage you’re at when a situation is getting complicated. Because state and federal governments almost always side with the employee, it’s wise to get help early and often.
When you do need to hire an attorney, don’t make the mistake of going to your business attorney for advice on employment matters. These areas of expertise are quite different, so go straight to the right kind of expert. Employment attorneys come in two varieties: ones who represent employers and ones who represent employees. When you choose an employment attorney, make sure yours has experience successfully representing employers.
Here’s an example of how a situation can get out of hand despite good intentions. I once had a sales employee who stopped coming to work due to “medical problems.” We granted him extra vacation and paid for it as a kindness. Then we let him take an extended leave of absence for two months. When he returned, we found out that he had voluntarily gone for electroshock therapy (an extreme treatment for depression). We could no longer let him work the phone with customers because he was not coherent or consistent when speaking. We offered him several other positions, which he declined, so we had no choice but to offer him unemployment and lay him off. The next day we were served with a wrongful termination suit from the state. Although we won the first round, he went on to file a civil suit which we ended up settling. We later found out that he had run up all his credit cards in the preceding month and had filed for bankruptcy the same day he sued us. We devoted considerable resources, including some significant out-of-pocket costs, to deal with this situation.
There are several lessons to learn from the above experience. First, paying for the extra vacation set a very costly precedent for other employees. We might have averted this issue by having the policy spelled out more clearly in our employee handbook. Second, not getting better legal advice at the first hint of trouble cost us tens of thousands of dollars. So don’t keep throwing Band-Aids on an employee problem like we did. Get the outside help you need early.
Excerpted from my book, “Putting Together the Entrepreneurial Puzzle: The Ten Pieces Every Business Needs to Succeed.” Available here on Amazon.