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E-cigarettes in the workplace prove a problem for human resources

29 Sep

Electronic cigarettes are now a common sight. From bars and clubs to restaurants and stores, you can see some people puffing clouds of vapor from the electric sticks. But allowing e-cigarettes in the workplace is a major issue for businesses and their human resources systems

Hon Lik, a Chinese pharmacist invented the e-cigarette in 2003 as a way to get himself to quit smoking but it never took, according to The Guardian. And vape pens and other styles of the device are taking off in popularity with their use tripling from 2013 to 2014 among teenagers and doubling for adults from 2010 to 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

The electronic sticks are, so far, not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, however, the government agency could take action on them in the future, USA Today reported. 

Vaping in the workplace
E-cigarettes allow a smoker to drop a liquid containing nicotine into the device and then he or she can inhale it in the form of vapors. Many contend that electronic smokes are just as harmful to health as regular cigarettes even if the product isn't burning like normal rolling papers. According to NBC News, people who vape take shorter puffs and don't inhale as deeply as those smoking the real thing. Also, unlike regular tobacco products, the long-term health effects of electronic cigarette use still isn't known. 

Some large companies such as Starbucks, UPS and Wal-Mart banned e-cigarettes from their workplaces, according to The Society for Human Resource Management, while other businesses are taking a wait-and-see approach since the full effects including breathing in secondhand vapor isn't known.

Clear regulations
However, some human resource publications advise offices to take action and ban all styles of electronic smoking to create clear-cut policies. If an employer forbids smoking standard paper and tobacco cigarettes while on the job, why would they allow vaping? 

"If you just ban smoking or tobacco products, you haven't covered e-cigarettes," Russell Chapman, an attorney with employment and labor law firm Littler Mendelson P.C., told the SHRM . "You need to specifically ban them if you want them covered."

Allowing one but not the other creates ambiguity in a workplace environment, Human Resource Executive Online noted. It's better to be safe than sorry since there's still no empirical data regarding the safety of e-cigarettes. 

"The important thing is to have a clearly written policy consistently enforced across the board," Elizabeth Leitzinger, an attorney with Fenton and Keller in Monterey, California, told the SHRM.

According to Leitzinger and others, it makes more sense to outright ban vapes and other forms of e-cigarettes from the office as some of the devices are made to look like the real thing – having a white cylindrical stick with a light that glows when the user puffs on it.

Advocates for vaping in the workplace said the device can actually help employees who smoke regularly because they'll no longer need to leave the office to take a puff and can do so at their desks while working. Therefore, using an e-cigarette could increase productivity for smokers and also help them quit real tobacco products. However, their argument doesn't hold weight since there's no evidence to prove that the devices do either, Inside Counsel reported.

Since the speed of technology development outpaces governing bodies such as the FDA, use of e-cigarettes in the office will inevitably fall on the shoulders of managers and human resource departments. Whatever a company's decision may be, the SHRM noted business leaders should seek out the advice of their counsel before implementing any policy changes.

Tips for conducting internal investigations

8 Sep

Most human resources managers hope they will never have to deal with a workplace investigation. Unfortunately, investigations are often a crucial part of HR's job. Whenever an employee files a complaint, whether it's related to discrimination, harassment, theft or failure to comply with workplace laws, the organization needs to conduct an internal investigation. If companies fail to do a good enough job, it can be a problem for the company. For instance, if a company doesn't adequately respond to serious allegations, the event could come back to haunt the brand and result in a diminished public reputation. 

Why investigations are important
Aside from protecting the business against liability, internal investigations have a number of other important benefits. According to "Practical Tips for Conducting Workplace Investigations," from Gibbons P.C., workplace investigations demonstrate to staff that rules and policies aren't just for show. When employees cross boundaries, there are real consequences. Conducting these investigations also may make employees more likely to come forward with an issue because they see their employers actually respond.

Just carrying out the investigation isn't always enough; it needs to be done thoroughly. An ineffective investigation can be used against the employer in court. Also, if employees notice the investigation is subpar or being carried out in a lackluster manner, they may not take the rules as seriously as they otherwise would.

For instance, James Castelluccio, former IBM vice president, won a case against his previous employer, arguing he was wrongfully terminated because of his age, the Society for Human Resources Management wrote. He won $4.1 million in the lawsuit. The judge criticized IBM for how it handled Castelluccio's discrimination complaint.

Here are some tips for conducting an investigation and avoiding a similar faux pas:

Know the laws
In some ways, being an HR professional is more complicated now than ever before because the laws change so frequently, and employees are increasingly aware of their rights. HR professionals need to stay up to date with any legislation that could impact their workplace. This can help them prepare quickly in case of an incident.

Have a plan
It's important to have a written plan in the event an employee files a serious complaint. When no plan is in place, there is a greater likelihood that HR departments will forget a key procedure or simply fail to do an effective job. Before jumping into the investigation, you outline who will investigate, what you will investigate, what evidence will need to be collected and who will need to be interviewed, SHRM suggested. It's also important that everyone understands the full scope of the investigation and why it is taking place.

Develop great interview skills
Interviews are at the center of every workplace interview. HR needs to track down everyone involved or anyone who may have witnessed the incident. In an interview with SHRM, Natalie Ivey, an expert on internal investigations, noted that investigations require great interview skills because interviewers need to confront liars as well as convince some reluctant witnesses to share their stories. Interviewers should thoroughly plan their questions but plan to ask follow ups that encourage interviewees to open up.

Remain objective
While it can be difficult for investigators to remain impartial, it's important for HR to be objective to ensure the investigation is fairly carried out.

Follow through
When finishing up an interview, HR practitioners should ask the person if there is anyone else who they should talk to. It's important not to leave anyone out or overlook key evidence. According to SHRM, failing to follow up with those involved is one of the top investigation mistakes that organizations make.

Proper documentation throughout the investigation is key. HR staff should use employee management software to store any information they learn in the course of the investigation. This data may be useful in future cases, as well. Any workplace investigation may involve reviewing previous incidents with specific employees, according to HR Hero.

Workplace investigations are tricky. Having the right HR management software ensures that companies are able to document every step of the procedures and make sure nothing slips through the cracks.

Is it time to reduce office hours?

14 Aug

Employees work more hours than ever, and it's starting to have an impact on their well-being. It's up to human resources managers to work with companies to curb this trend, especially given impending changes to overtime pay laws. Consider using a survey or reviewing data in your employee management software to gauge how your staff feel about their current hours and workload.

Working more hours
A new survey from CareerBuilder found the 9-to-5 workday is becoming a thing of the past. With 24-7 access to email and work communications, working hours rarely conform to the traditional office hours.

More than 60 percent of all employees in information technology, financial services, sales, and professional and business services think working nine to five is an outdated concept, the survey found.

What are staff doing outside of typical office hours? Half answer emails, while almost 40 percent continue to focus on their typical day-to-day tasks.

While the majority of workers (62 percent) feel operating outside of normal working hours is a choice rather than a requirement, HR teams may want to consider whether they want to encourage this behavior to continue.

Worker morale
Because staff are chained to their desks, either mentally or physically, they lose out on time to pursue personal interests and spend time with their families. The survey found many employees think about work before going to bed or right when they wake up. Others have trouble keeping their mind off of work during leisure activities.

On top of making employees unhappy, working excessive hours makes staff less productive overall. Once employees begin to work more than 50 hours, for instance, output begins to fall, according to research from John Pencavel of Stanford University. There is a limit to how productive workers can be with their time. After the 50 hour mark, adding more hours to the work day does not result in more productivity.

There's good evidence to demonstrate reducing working hours increases happiness without productivity decreasing. However, with President Obama's proposed change to overtime law, employers may have another reason to limit working hours.

Legal issues on the horizon
President Obama announced a potential extension of overtime pay to those making $47,892 or less annually, according to a statement from the Department of Labor. This would mean roughly 5 million workers would soon be eligible for overtime pay. If employers want to avoid the high costs of overtime pay, they will need to either reconfigure job descriptions or put preventative measures in place to keep staff from exceeding 40 hours per workweek.

With these impending changes to labor laws, HR managers should consider the potential benefits of reducing staff hours before it becomes a necessity.

While cloud-based software and digital devices cause employees to work longer hours, these tools also have the benefit of enabling flexible schedules. Allowing some employees to create their own schedules could make it easier to keep them within a specific timeframe and prevent feeling exhausted and overworked.

New overtime proposal could present HR challenges

17 Jul

The Department of Labor recently announced potential changes to laws governing overtime pay. Under the proposal, almost 5 million white collar workers would now have access to overtime pay. Currently, the threshold for salaried workers is set at $23,660, which is below the poverty line for many families. The new proposal would extend overtime pay to anyone making $50,440 per year. The old threshold was established years ago and hasn't been adjusted for inflation, leaving many middle class employees consistently working overtime hours without the benefit of overtime pay.

Challenges for human resources ahead
Naturally, if the rule goes through, companies may be forced to make strategic changes to prevent too many staff members from accruing costly overtime. According to Human Resources Executive Online, HR departments may need to perform compensation studies to take a hard look a specific positions and whether they would benefit from being reclassified from exempt employees to nonexempt and change their duties to reflect these adjustments.

In an interview with the website, Gregory Kamer, partner of management labor employment firm Kamer Zucker Abbott, said the rule will definitely create some changes in the employment landscape.

Companies that don't want to pay overtime will need to make some changes, he said. The choice will come down to employing more people or raising current staff members' wages to cross the threshold.

What counts as overtime?
Determining whether to reclassify employees and carrying out the necessary work to do so will be just one of HR's new challenges. Another issue will be curbing the hours of staff who remain under the threshold. In this area, email might prove to be a challenge, according to NPR. White collar workers find it harder to disconnect from work at night due to the availability of mobile devices. With just a few touches to a screen, employees can access their inboxes with no problem. The question is when employees check their email, does it count as work time? The answer is likely yes.

HR departments may soon field more queries about overtime pay and will have to double​ check compliance issues related to specific job duties and classifications. Ultimately, the ability to remain compliant could come down to having tools like employee management software that make it easy to monitor worker hours and salary requirements.

Maintaining poster compliance with outsourced payroll

2 Jul

The U.S. Department of Labor requires businesses to display posters on the walls around their offices. These posters convey important information about employee rights in the workplace. Full of image- and text-based information, the DOL posters are varied, and each one is applicable to different types of businesses. An outsourced payroll vendor can inform a company which posters it must display and how to keep them updated based on current regulation changes.

What types of posters might go up at a business?
Almost any federal or state law pertaining to employment has its own poster. Here is a short list of some posters employees may find in their workplaces:

  • Job Safety and Health Protection poster
  • Equal Employment Opportunity – Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (as amended) poster
  • Fair Labor Standards Act Wage and Hour Division poster
  • Notice to All Employees Working on Federal or Federally Financed Construction Projects Wage and Hour Division poster
  • Office of Labor-Management Standards Executive Order poster

Each of these posters pertains to a very specific collection of businesses and has its own set of rules regarding where the poster can be displayed. For instance, construction companies must post one version of the Wage and Hour Division poster, while small businesses have to post another. Requirements vary depending on the industry, company size and types of employees.

Where can businesses find posters?
As HR360 pointed out, all of the federally mandated posters are available for free on the Department of Labor website. However, each state has its own unique series of guidelines companies have to follow when it comes to posters in the workplace. This is where outsourced human resources systems come in.

Outsourcing payroll improves poster compliance
It's no surprise outsourced HR is there, ready to step in and streamline processes like maintaining compliance when it comes to paychecks, benefits enrollment, tax deductions, hiring and more. But when it comes to posters physically in the workplace, these service providers are also on top of things, keeping businesses up to speed on any changes to poster guidelines or information that employees must be aware of.

For example, as of April, private employers working in the commerce sector have to display the Job Safety and Health Protection poster issued by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in a spot where both employees and applicants can clearly see it. Should an original poster not be available, these types of companies would have to print out an 8.5-by-14-inch poster with at least 10 point font for workers to observe and read. HR is already bogged down by daily tasks, managing entire businesses and ensuring workers are meeting their potential. Monitoring updates and deadlines for posters could waste time and money if the posters don't go up in a timely manner.

Having an outsourced HR provider is especially helpful for enterprises with locations in multiple states. Since each state requires unique versions of some posters, a single department may find it difficult to keep track of all the regulatory changes or guidelines for each location.

Failure to comply could result in fines
If the DOL completes an audit of a particular business and finds the company isn't up to date on its mandatory posters, each violation could cost the business a fine or penalty fee. The company could also receive contract sanctions or have to appear in court where civil penalties would be assessed. Some violations have no consequences. 

Outsourcing payroll can not only improve businesses' compliance to specific paycheck deductions and benefits administration, but it can also enhance the daily lives of workers around the country.

E-cigarettes and HR policies

22 May

Human resources professionals have to take the safety and well-being of all employees into account when composing business policies and procedures. Many companies provide health and wellness programs to employees or organize corporate outings that encourage physical activity and good mental health. However, with the emergence of new technologies, HR departments are finding their policies may need revamping.

What are e-cigarettes?
E-cigarettes gained popularity in the U.S. in 2007, and the devices still receive mixed reviews when it comes to risks, side effects and benefits, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The products, which are battery-operated and require no ignition, allow people to inhale aerosol versions of the addictive chemicals found in real cigarettes. The FDA reported it's unclear what amounts of nicotine and other chemicals are actually inhaled by users and how much is let out into the atmosphere.

Primarily, people began using e-cigarettes to quit smoking real tobacco. The Society for Human Resource Management reported between 2004 and 2011, industries with cigarette smokers varied, though construction, mining and accommodation accounted for 30 percent of all smoking employees in this timeframe. By 2013, about 30 percent of all smokers had tried e-cigarettes. The U.S. Center for Disease Control found between 2010 and 2013, the number of U.S. adults smoking e-cigarettes more than doubled. 

The only e-cigarettes currently officially regulated by the FDA are therapeutic e-cigarettes. The FDA Center for Tobacco Products regulates only real cigarettes, rolling tobacco and smokeless tobacco, though its goal is to soon help regulate electronic versions as well. 

Potentially harmful vapors and the office
When it comes to smoking e-cigarettes in the workplace, it gets a little tricky. Technically, electronic devices are not real cigarettes, but because side effects are unknown, it's best to establish a strict policy on whether e-cigarettes can be used indoors. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommended completely banning e-cigarettes in the workplace. 

"Employers have invested significant time and resources into developing effective workplace policies that help reduce the use of tobacco among employees and their families," Jerry Noyce, Health Enhancement Research Organization's president and CEO, told SHRM.

Noyce's organization contributed to publishing a paper entitled "Guidance to Employers in Integrating E-Cigarettes/Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems into Tobacco Worksite Policy" earlier this year. The report concluded businesses should consider e-cigarettes as part of the same category as tobacco products and until further review from the FDA, ban them from indoor use in offices.

However, since many smokers are using the e-cigarettes to quit their smoking habits, it's crucial employers offer electronic users their own designated smoking areas separate from traditional smokers. This is a huge step toward ensuring those employees trying to quit stay on the right path.

In maintaining compliance with the Affordable Care Act, HR departments cannot require smokers to quit. A valid choice would be to incorporate smoking cessation options into current wellness programs or practices. In addition, HR professionals should check their state regulations, as some states already ban e-cigarettes indoors.

Strategic human resources solutions to employee health issues are crucial to maintaining a healthy, productive work environment. 

Stevens v. Rite Aid: A lesson on the ADA

22 May

Recently, a licensed pharmacist named Christopher Stevens was fired by his employer, Rite Aid. The Society for Human Resource Management reported the company claimed Stevens' refusal to perform specific duties  on the job led to his termination. However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found Rite Aid in violation of both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the New York State Human Rights Law. In January, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York awarded Stevens a total of $2.6 million.

Where did Rite Aid go wrong?
Stevens has been working as a pharmacist and pharmacy manager in upstate New York for almost 40 years. In 1977, when Stevens started his career, administering immunizations to customers was not part of the pharmacist's job description. This sat well with Stevens, as he suffers from trypanophobia, or a crippling fear of needles.

Law 360 reported Rite Aid bought Eckerd Pharmacy, where Stevens worked in Utica, New York, in 2007. As flu shots became more popular in recent years, Rite Aid made the decision to offer the immunizations at pharmacies around the country. This meant pharmacists would have to inject customers with immunizations after attending a training program to become certified to do so.

Stevens received an email with the immunization certification information in March 2011, requesting his presence at an upcoming training session. His doctor swiftly provided Rite Aid's human resource department and district managers with documents outlining the pharmacist's trypanophobia. Needles and injections caused Stevens to sweat profusely, grow anxious and experience a sharp decrease in blood pressure. In addition to the doctor's letter, SHRM noted Steven's asked for a reasonable accommodation from Rite Aid, which would have provided him an alternative work environment or task to administering immunizations.

Federal regulation compliance issues 
As outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers cannot discriminate against workers in the public accommodation sector, among others, due to disabilities. ADA and the EEOC define disabilities as both mental and physical ailments that limit fundamental actions, such as walking, talking or hearing. Disabilities can also include chronic illnesses, either currently present or in remission.

Rather than offering a reasonable accommodation, Rite Aid sent another training session notification to Stevens and asked for clarification on the contents of the doctor's note regarding trypanophobia. The doctor informed Rite Aid having Stevens administer flu shots would be a danger to both patients and the pharmacist himself.

In August 2011, the district pharmacy manager, HR manager and district manager for Rite Aid told Stevens in person he would be fired if he did not complete the training. Stevens was let go five days later.

The EEOC investigation
The EEOC took a look into the situation after Stevens filed a claim. The organization found Rite Aid had in fact discriminated against the pharmacist's disability and fired him unlawfully. The EEOC also found giving customers immunization injections wasn't a vital aspect of Stevens' position with the company, nor does the state of New York require a licensed pharmacist be able to give injections.

The jury awarded a total of $2.6 million to Stevens. Broken down, that amount is comprised of:

  • Back pay: $485,633 for work that could have been completed had Rite Aid allowed Stevens to work
  • Front pay: $1.23 million for employment discrimination
  • Emotional distress damages: $900,000 for causing mental anguish or stress

The jury did not, however, award any punitive damages in the case. According to Legal Match, this is likely due to the fact that Rite Aid broke or altered a contract, an action which does not result in punitive damages. Stevens also suffered no physical harm, which is typically when juries decide to award punitive damages.

What could Rite Aid have done differently?
No company wants a public lawsuit that concludes with a disgruntled, distressed employee and a big ADA compliance failure on record. Businesses want their employees to be happy, successful contributors to the organization. A strategic human resource management system can help large corporations like Rite Aid better handle these tricky scenarios and communicate with workers to understand their unique situations. Employers must be informed of any and all nuances as they apply to the ADA, EEOC and Department of Labor guidelines. These stipulations are hard to keep track of, and without excellent tools to help organize employees and changing job descriptions, businesses could end up paying fines on a regular basis. 

Summary of Benefits and Coverage further delayed

22 May

The Department of Labor released an addendum to its original FAQs page for the Affordable Care Act Implementation. Dated March 30, the new FAQs state the DOL will further delay the Summary of Benefits and Coverage template and all related documents until 2016. Employers and human resources professionals need to pay close attention to the newly proposed dates of implementation to maintain compliance with the ACA and SBC regulations.

What were the original regulations?
In December 2014, the DOL, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Treasury released an FAQ outlining the proposed regulations for all impending changes to the SBC. As Cigna stated, these rules:

  • Dictated when and how employers or insurers are supposed to provide SBCs
  • Streamlined the SBC template, eliminating many questions
  • Edited the SBC glossary
  • Added a more universal cost example

After accepting comments on these proposed changes through March 2, these new regulations were to take effect on September 1. However, these dates have now been pushed back to allow for additional changes being made to the SBC. 

What changed?
As of March 30, the departments in charge of the ACA and the SBC announced they are delaying the application date for some of the proposed changes to 2016. In addition, the original changes announced in 2014 underwent several updates, including, additional edits to the glossary, new claims and pricing data to help calculate coverage price, no more annual limits for essential health benefits information, a more universal cost example, new data on minimum essential coverage and minimum value information and a website for the policy or group certificate of coverage.

It's also possible there will be further changes made down the line; these are simply the current alterations under consideration. Should these amendments be accepted, the SBC documents will become finalized on Jan. 1, 2016, which means the regulations wouldn't technically go into effect until Jan. 1, 2017, when programs take effect for those enrolling in the fall of 2016.

What did not change?
There are, however, several stipulations originally proposed late last year that will still take effect on the previously anticipated date. The following stipulations will become effective Sept. 1, 2015 for any plan that begins Jan.1, 2016:

  • SBCs provided at enrollment and re-enrollment
  • Roles of participants responsible for tracking compliance when working with third parties
  • Health reimbursement accounts and health savings accounts applicability
  • Excepted benefits
  • Expatriate coverage
  • Medicare Advantage plans

Why the delay?
There are several reasons the departments decided to delay the implementation of some of the proposed SBC changes. One reason is businesses employing large numbers of people and insurers offering coverage expressed a need for more time to prepare documents for open enrollment this fall. Employee Benefit News reported the original start date didn't give employers and insurers enough time to change processes and carry out SBC deliveries adequately. The departments also would like to put some of the proposed amendments through consumer testing before implementation.

As evidenced by past changes made to guidelines like the SBC, input from consumers and businesses is critical to finalization. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners and other similar groups now have more time to offer insight, input and suggestions for the departments.

What does this mean for employers today?
While it may seem large and small businesses and their insurance providers have been given the gift of time, that is only partially true. Again, there are still changes that will go into effect Sept. 1, 2015. Plus, regardless of whether employers want to begin switching internal process now or later, Business Insurance noted eventually all parties will have to become compliant with these new regulations down the road. It's a good idea to start now, even if the final rules haven't been announced just yet. 

This is true especially for businesses offering multiple benefits packages. Big corporations with a multitude of benefit options for employees will need to start now to keep up with the changes over the next few years. Each package will require a different statement, and it can't hurt to get ahead by making amendments to the statements now in anticipation of regulation completion later. This is where employee management software can become incredibly useful. HR is burdened with communicating this essential, albeit confusing, information to all employees. With a comprehensive platform that offers support and organization, navigating the rocky waters of SBC changes becomes infinitely more manageable. 

Preparing for FLSA changes with personnel management software

21 May

Personnel management software can help businesses during times of intense transition, especially when it's unclear whether certain changes will occur.

Potential amendments to overtime exemption
Last year, President Barack Obama issued a memorandum calling for a revision of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Obama appealed to the secretary of labor, stating the existing overtime regulations for white collar workers needed to be streamlined and changed to include more employees. 

Since then, the U.S. Department of Labor has announced several different dates on which it planned to release the proposed regulation changes. First December 2014 and then February 2015 was supposed to be the date of issuance. Then, in March 2015, the Supreme Court ruled "a federal agency does not have to go through the formal rulemaking processes" when deciding to make amendments to current regulations. This means should the DOL decide to make significant alterations, it doesn't need to provide a period of time for the public to make comments.

However, it's now April, and there is no word on when employers can expect the definitive new regulations. That doesn't mean businesses should sit quietly and wait it out. There are actions employers can take to prepare themselves for any transition that may soon appear.

FLSA regulations today
Currently, the FLSA overtime regulations state any full-time worker who makes $455 per week, or $23,660 per year, or less can be considered exempt from receiving overtime pay for working more than 40 hours in one week. CNN Money stated employers classify these workers as exempt and make the choice to pay them salaries instead of an hourly wage. Today, only 12 percent of workers qualify for overtime.

Employees affected by this white collar exemption policy include managers, administrative professionals, sales workers, teachers and other professionals in careers that require advanced knowledge in science or the arts, according to the DOL website.

What regulations could look like tomorrow
President Obama's goal is to increase the baseline salary required for workers to be exempt from overtime pay. While regulators have proposed no exact increment, many speculate the DOL will mandate the amount is raised to somewhere between $42,000 and $52,000. This would make 3.5 million and 6.1 million more workers, respectively, eligible for overtime pay.

The Economic Policy Institute and the National Employment Law Project hope the threshold is increased even higher. Ideally, for these groups, the number would get bumped up to $51,168 per year. This would mean 47 percent of workers would be eligible for overtime pay.

How does this affect employers?
Even though no announcements have been made yet, employers cannot ignore this issue. After the Supreme Court decision in March, new guidelines could become reality at any time, and businesses need to be ready to accept the changes and transition.

One thing employers cannot do is forget about state laws. It's possible that the new stipulations could change the way employers reconcile differences between minimum wage guidelines in their states and the FLSA. Employers have to comply with both.

The Society for Human Resources Management stated employers should review current job descriptions to ensure duties, exemption status and responsibilities are clearly expressed to candidates. It also may take several months for the new guidelines to take effect. Should a business have to reclassify a large number of employees, companies may find themselves redefining certain roles or expectations. Preparing options now for potential changes later is a good idea. 

Personnel management software can help businesses not only prepare for a future change but also handle it better when the announcement finally rolls in. 

What do HR managers need to know about the EEOC’s initiative to eliminate workplace harassment?

16 Apr

HR manager software can help a human resource professional better manage payroll, training and time off. As anyone in the field knows, these systems are critical given the number of other tasks on HR's plate. From new workplace rules to government initiatives, there's a lot for human resource professionals to stay up to date on.

One of these government initiatives includes ending workplace harassment. So what exactly do internal teams need to know about it, and how will it impact them, if at all?

What constitutes as harassment and what role does the EEOC play?
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has long aimed to ensure all workers, regardless of sex, race, disability or other defining characteristics, have the same opportunities in the workplace. The government body has also made a move to eliminate harassment many people face on the job. Harassment of this nature is illegal, but some employers may be unclear on the specifics. 

According to the EEOC, conduct becomes unlawful when it creates an environment that is hostile, offensive or intimidating to a reasonable person. This can include physical assaults, threats, offensive jokes or insults, intimidation, ridicule or a range of other activities. Minor isolated incidents and irritations do not fall under this umbrella and would thus not be considered illegal, unwelcome as they may be. 

Harassment doesn't have to come from a higher-up. While an offender may sometimes be a worker's manager, it's just as likely the harasser could be a coworker, contractor or even a non-employee. 

It's critical HR acts on harassment complaints, or better yet, tries to nip this problem in the bud. Employers are responsible for harassment from a manager that leads to an employee's termination, failure to get a promotion or pay cut, and are also liable for harassment from other individuals if they knew or should have known about the activity and didn't put a stop to it.

EEOC finds harassment still a significant issue
While employers are certainly aware of the detrimental impacts harassment brings to the workplace and most employees sign some sort of policy stating they understand their company's harassment policy, this is still a surprisingly large issue.

A January EECO meeting found that of all the complaints filed with the organization, about 30 percent allege workplace harassment. This indicates employers aren't doing enough to keep harassment out of the workplace, or employees find the any training sessions they currently undergo ineffective. 

Due to the high rate of alleged harassment, EEOC Chair Jenny Yang announced she would establish a task force aimed at determining what strategies would best help eliminate this common workplace problem.

"The EEOC is working to leverage our resources to have a greater impact on the persistent problem of workplace harassment," said Yang. "By identifying underlying problems in workplaces and industries where we see recurring patterns of harassment, we are developing strategies that focus on targeted outreach and education as well as systemic enforcement to promote broader voluntary compliance."

Data from the EEOC shows that the fiscal year ranging from Oct. 1, 2013 to Sept. 20, 2014 saw nearly 31,100 individuals claim they'd been harassed because of their race, while more than 26,000 said their sex was the reason behind the harassment. More than 25,300 and 20,000 said the same about their disability and age, respectively.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the rate of individuals alleging retaliation for reporting harassment hit a new high of nearly 43 percent during this period. 

How employers can stop harassment
Harassment is costly, with regard to time spent trying to settle the case, low employee morale, damages that may need to be paid and a damaged brand reputation. Rather than dealing with these problems as they arise, HR departments need to determine what they can do to stop this serious issue before it even starts. 

One of these things will include revisiting current harassment training programs, namely: Do any exist? If employees are simply signing off on a sheet saying they understand and will comply with company harassment policies, they may not understand the seriousness of the issue and that something they consider a joke could actually have significant repercussions in the long run. 

Creating stronger and more informative preventative training sessions is one area in which the EEOC's Yang thinks employers could focus on. 

"Preventing harassment from occurring in the first place is far preferable to remedying its consequences," she said in a press release. 

To do this, HR managers will need to determine what needs to be discussed at the sessions, potentially including:

  • What actions constitute harassment
  • Examples of harassment and why these are considered such
  • Which groups are protected from workplace harassment by law
  • Who can be accused of harassment
  • The legal repercussions if someone goes to the EEOC with a harassment complaint
  • What will happen to an individual accused of harassment

By getting ahead of this troubling trend, employers can protect themselves and their employees from harassment and the potential litigation that may fo​llow.

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