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How to Handle a Work Suspension – Ask #HR Bartender

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As a human resources professional, I have suspended employees. It didn’t happen very often, but it did happen. Because it wasn’t a regular occurrence, I was extra cautious to make sure that it was handled properly. So I can understand how difficult it must be for the employee – they don’t know what to do. That’s what today’s reader is trying to figure out. 

Hi. I’ve been suspended from work for four months. To date, I haven’t been scheduled for the investigatory meeting.

There has been lack of communication and correspondence. I’ve received no further details regarding evidence or witnesses except what I was briefly told on the day of suspension. According to the policy in the employee handbook, I should have received a reply. I sent an appeal of the suspension and haven’t received a response.

Is there something I can do? This is causing me extreme physical and mental health problems. Have my employer and HR failed me? Please help! Thanks.

I don’t have to tell you that there are always two sides to every story and, obviously, we don’t know all the details in this situation. So, we can’t answer direct questions. But there are some things that we can talk about when it comes to suspensions and investigations.

To help us understand more, please welcome Marc Alifanz, principal at Four Peaks Employment Advisors. Marc and I are connected on LinkedIn and I’ve noticed that he writes super helpful stuff so I asked him if he would assist. Thankfully, he said yes. Even though Marc is an attorney, please remember that his comments should not be construed as legal advice or as pertaining to any specific factual situations. If you have particular detailed questions, they should be addressed directly with your friendly neighborhood labor attorney.

Marc, I’ve received a few reader questions lately about suspensions. I’ve always viewed them as a “last resort” option. What is a suspension and why would a company suspend an employee?

[Alifanz] Suspensions are a period of time where an employee is required by the employer to be out of work for some specific reason. Suspensions can take all sorts of different forms. Some are paid; most are not. Some are for a defined period of time, while others are not.

While there are many different reasons an employee may be placed on suspension, most suspensions fall under one of two categories:

  1. As a punishment for violating a work rule; and
  2. As in our question above, time off while the employer investigates an alleged serious violation of company policy.

Suspension as punishment is generally straightforward. Often companies will have policies that dictate a failure to follow certain rules or workplace norms will result in some form of discipline. It could be a counseling or a written warning, but as the offense increases in severity, it can also take the form of a suspension without pay, or a termination of employment. The suspension in this case is basically the workplace equivalent of sending a child to their room to ‘think about what they’ve done.’ And, not get paid for time they’d otherwise be working.

Investigation suspensions are a bit more open-ended. Let’s use a brief example: Employee in a machine shop is accused of violating a known and very serious safety rule. The employee denies it. At this early stage, we don’t know if there are any witnesses or other evidence that will help us determine if she did it or not. But, importantly, if she DID do it, we wouldn’t want her working there anymore, and don’t want to take the risk of having another incident happen. So in this case, I’d recommend a suspension pending an investigation. Once complete, and we form our conclusions, we bring the employee back, or not.

And one last note: Suspensions for investigations are generally unpaid. But I will often advise clients to keep the investigation short, and if the allegations are unsubstantiated, to pay the employee for the lost time.

The reader talks about non-responsiveness after being suspended. That could be the case here, but we don’t know for sure. When it comes to investigations, can managers or even HR be held personally liable if they fail to handle an investigation properly? 

Marc Alifanz, attorney, employment law, HR laws, HR law, hostile work environment, Four Peaks Employment Advisors[Alifanz] Let’s get all nerdy and Latin-y for a moment. You ask about personal liability. Personal liability is different from the company’s liability. By that I mean, a company’s liability is much easier to establish than an individual’s. That’s because of a concept called respondeat superior – literally translated as ‘let the master answer.’ Essentially, this concept means that an employer is responsible for the acts of its agent that occur in furthering the work of the employer.

So, in the situation of investigations, unless the manager or HR has acted in a way clearly outside the scope of their employment (rare), it is extremely unlikely that they can be held personally liable for failing to administer an investigation properly. Two quick caveats:

  1. This does not necessarily mean that the employer itself will be immune from liability for botching an investigation, though I’d say it’s rare.
  2. This also does not mean that the individual manager won’t be named in the lawsuit. But don’t fret! This is often done by plaintiffs for procedural reasons to keep cases in a certain court system that they find advantageous. While I can’t say it never happens, I have personally never had a case in the employment context where an individual defendant was found personally liable.

The reader note also mentions the employee handbook. Should handbooks include disciplinary processes? Why or why not?

[Alifanz] Traditionally, handbooks have been viewed as laying out all the rules and regulations of an employer, and as such, they would go into great detail regarding disciplinary processes. While many employers prefer that, and still have that (which is fine!), many are moving toward handbooks that are as much about defining company culture as they are about rules.

Personally, I’m not a fan of handbooks that outline on every page all the ways an employee can be fired. It’s not engaging for employees, and puts them in fear from day one. I prefer handbooks that address discipline in one spot with a catch-all. That catch-all may be light on detail or very specific, depending on the company’s needs. I’m generally fine with it so long as:

  1. They apply the policy consistently; and
  2. They write it in such a way that it gives them some wiggle room, as I’ve found over time that rules and reality don’t necessary always work well together.

We don’t know if the employee has been suspended with or without pay. In my experience, employees have been suspended for days (not months). If the employee isn’t receiving pay, this could cause a financial hardship. Do employees have any options? If so, what are they?

[Alifanz] Well, unless the policy specifically discussed the employee’s rights in this regard, which most won’t, the employee’s options will tend to be limited. If the suspension goes on endlessly, they may want to get searching for a new job.

That said, all employers should try to allocate sufficient resources (and I know this is hard) to investigate serious incidents quickly and efficiently, so that employees aren’t off work for more than a week or two just sitting in limbo. Sometimes it can be hard to move quickly given limited availability of witnesses, but it’s better for everyone involved when you wrap up your investigation quickly.

Four Peaks Employment Advisors, Marc Alifanz, suspension, logo, human resources, management, employment advisors

The employee mentions physical and mental health problems. Again, we don’t know the specifics, but can something like this expose the company to additional liability? 

[Alifanz] In very limited circumstances, it could. Generally speaking, anyone placed on suspension is going to feel some amount of emotional distress, whether they committed the act or not. And if the suspension itself was done lawfully, any emotional distress that comes from it will generally not be something that exposes the company to liability.

Off the top of my head, I can think of two kinds of examples where it might:

  1. Where the suspension itself occurs as the result of some form of illegal discrimination. If, for example, an employee can credibly claim that the employer only suspended him because of his protected class, like race, then the suspension itself could be actionable. In that circumstance, the employee could potentially receive compensation for the emotional distress that occurred as a result of the investigation.
  2. If an individual levies an outrageous and untrue claim against the employee – especially as part of a campaign of hostility against the employee – resulting in the employee’s suspension, that individual or the company could be subject to a claim for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED). IIED claims are often brought as add-ons in litigation, but the standard required to find liability is so high that they are rarely successful.

A HUGE thanks to Marc for sharing his experience with us. Be sure to check out Marc’s Hostile Work Environment Podcast.

Employee suspensions are not an action that should be taken lightly. Companies need to make sure they are handling the matter properly, both from a legal perspective and from a respect standpoint.

Image captured by Sharlyn Lauby exploring the streets of Havana, Cuba

The post How to Handle a Work Suspension – Ask #HR Bartender appeared first on hr bartender.

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About Mildred Blankson

I am a Human Resource Professional with a Masters Degree in Human Resource Management. I have several years of experience in Human Resources and i hope this blog will be a great resource in helping you find the perfect job or candidate that you seek.

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How to Leverage Company Benefits to Recruit and Retain Top Talent

One-third of organizations have increased their overall benefit offerings in 2016, according to a research report compiled by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). As recruiting and retaining top talent continue to become increasingly difficult for employers, robust benefit packages play a key role. When salaries and perks (think: free lunch) are nearly equal from company to company, employees are likely to opt for the company that offers the best benefits and greatest opportunities.

Medical and financial benefits aside, employees are looking for lifestyle and career benefits. SHRM reported that the top reason employers increased benefits in 2016 was to remain competitive in the marketplace—and the three biggest focus areas for change were in the health (22%), wellness (24%), and professional and career development (16%) categories. Robust benefit packages that include career development, health and wellness, and flexible working options provide a platform for employers to stand out. Nearly one-third of employees look for external positions because they desire “overall better benefits,” second only to higher compensation.

The type of benefits you offer speaks volumes on how you treat and support employees, which always manifests by way of your external employer brand. It’s not enough to say “we have great benefits,” because “great benefits” are now table stakes. Companies have mastered the art of talking about perks, from catered lunches to team building activities. Failure to talk about the real support and development opportunities you offer to employees might translate to missed opportunities. So how can hiring managers and recruiters promote employee benefits to help with recruiting and retention?

#1: Kick “industry standard” out of your vocabulary

When recruiters and hiring managers list their company’s benefits and summarize with the catch-all phrase, we offer “industry standard” benefits, it’s not enough. When all else—compensation, vacation days, and perks—are even, offering a standard benefits package won’t help your company standout enough to secure commitment from a top employee. Even though it might be tempting to default to a quick response, it pays to provide more detail about the benefits your company offers, in length, during the interview process.

And even more importantly than providing a laundry list of benefits (but kudos to you for that list!), explain how these benefits fit in with core company values. For example, if you offer flexible work arrangements and flexible hours, explain that these arrangements support your company’s value of work-life balance. If you provide a gym membership or showers at work, talk about how it enhances company culture or creates opportunities for employees to get the exercise they desire in a convenient way.. When recruits begin to see how your benefits support their shared values and interests, they’ll see the benefits you offer are much greater than “industry standard.”

Employers hoping to keep a competitive edge are offering more than the “industry standard” at every stage of the employee journey, including at severance – according to a recent study by RiseSmart. If you’re on the cutting edge of severance offerings, use those benefits to differentiate your company form the competition.

#2: Talk about goals in the recruiting and interview process

Before an employee is even hired, find out what they’re looking for in their employer and what their short and long term goals are. Ask questions like, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” and “How are you hoping your employer will support you along your career journey?” Employees, many of whom are seeking opportunities for career development and continuing education, need to know you plan to invest in their individual career goals.

A Career Builder survey found that 45% of employees, regardless of generation, plan to stay with their employer for less than two years. During their tenure, they expect to benefit and grow with each new role and and at each new company. It’s important to convey to prospective employees that you invest in each individual employee, regardless for how long they plan to stay in the role for which they are being hired.

#3: Amplify the employee voice

Remind employees early on that they have a voice to share about company culture and employee benefits. Glassdoor, for example, recommends employers invite new hires to reflect on their first few months at the company. Whether this leads to internal feedback or a public review, it can assist efforts aimed at creating a positive employer brand.

L’Oréal recently launched a #LifeatLoreal hashtag to encourage employees to share photos of their experiences at work. The campaign all stemmed from the idea that people would trust their peers on social media when it came to L'Oréal being a great place to work. Employees posted a wide variety of pictures, including snapshots of various benefits and perks in action—such as flex days and catered lunches. Encourage employees to share the experiences they enjoy the most on the social channel of their choice.

#4: Keep employees engaged with benefits

On average, salary is only about 70% of an employee’s total compensation. When employees don’t take advantage of the benefits offered by the company, it’s equivalent to leaving 30% of the total compensation package on the table. Employers who keep employees engaged with benefits are more likely to see benefits manifest as part of the employer brand. An employee is highly unlikely to leave a Glassdoor review that mentions a positive benefit if she has never actually utilized the benefit.

Try hosting monthly or quarterly Q&A sessions to discuss available benefits. When you roll out a particularly hefty benefit, such as a new 401K offering, or an update to parental leave policy, give employees ample opportunity to ask questions. You could also share success stories from employees who have taken advantage of a particularly niche benefit, such as an hour of free lawyer services, to showcase how the benefit is used and encourage other employees to check it out.

#5: Benefits are the forgotten negotiation tool

If you are a hiring manager or recruiter engaging with a candidate, think beyond salary, or equity. Everything is negotiable, from vacation days to health insurance choices. Savvy employees, especially as the war for talent continues to heat up, will use benefits as negotiation tools—but don’t shy away from doing the same thing on the employer side. It’s often easier to offer more benefits than to secure additional salary for an employee.

Don’t be afraid to talk about your full complement of benefits, including your severance benefits. Prospective employees may feel more comfortable about joining a company that will take care of them, in the event of a downsizing or restructuring event. You may want to consider offering perks like outplacement and career transition services to employees who leave voluntarily as well as those who are involuntary subjects of a layoff. Knowing that you are invested in their career, even after they leave, will help you create a workforce of dedicated, engaged, and satisfied employees.

The world is small and everyone is connected. When you invest in employees, it leads to a positive employer brand. In the new Employee Relationship Economy, former employees will someday become vendors, customers, brand evangelists, recruiting references, or even boomerang employees. In a world where the employee/employer relationship is no longer finite, it’s important to convey your full support for employees’ career endeavors at every stage of their career journeys -- beginning early in the recruiting and interview process.

In every recruiting conversation, highlight your dedication to each employee’s career. When you frame up your organization’s benefits in context of how they fit in with the employee’s journey, it’s easy for the candidate to see how your company would support his journey. Communication about employee benefits can go a long way in the recruiting process—and will have a direct impact on your employer brand. If you offer much more than “industry standard,” you should be screaming it from the rooftops. Your current and prospective employees deserve to understand just how committed you are to their personal and professional journey.

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