Develop Your Managers' Legal Awareness

By Dori Meinert Jun 17, 2013
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CHICAGO--By training front-line managers to be more aware of their legal responsibilities to the company, HR professionals can reduce their company’s exposure to costly and time-consuming litigation, an employment law attorney told attendees at a pre-conference workshop Saturday at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Annual Conference & Exposition.

Managers “need to know how to help you. They need to spot issues,” said Gregory J. Hare, a shareholder with Ogletree Deakins in Atlanta.“The more your managers know about what you do … it helps develop their ‘spidey’ sense.”

HR professionals must help managers, especially those who were recently promoted, understand their new role with the organization, Hare said.“They need to know they are agents of the company. Even if they started as hourly workers … they have to realize they are now a leader.”

If an employee, even if it’s a friend who is now a subordinate, comes to them with a complaint, “they have to realize it’s their duty to pass it on.”

In today’s climate, many employees feel they are owed jobs even if they aren’t strong performers. If they get a negative performance review or are terminated, they may file a lawsuit. For this reason, HR professionals should make sure managers don’t feel it’s a sign of weakness on their part if they report problems with their subordinates, Hare said.

If they ignore the problems and don’t report them, they deprive the HR team of its ability to document the problems, he said.

The message that HR professionals should convey to managers is this: “You are not alone. You can count on your HR team. You are not supposed to know everything about employment issues. But if you spot the issues, HR can coach you, offer advice and brainstorm ideas on how to handle any issues that come up.”

Another key area HR professionals should help managers understand is what they can and cannot discuss with employees. The chief problem areas are topics that can lead to discrimination complaints. These topics include race, sex, religion, age, pregnancy, marital status, child care, physical ability, military status and arrests and convictions.

Although there are no acceptable questions managers can ask regarding an employee’s race, they can ask questions about citizenship. For example, they can ask “Do you have the legal right to work for an employer in the United States?” But it’s unacceptable to ask “Of what country are you a citizen?” or “When did you get your green card?”

Regarding pregnancy, Hare said it is acceptable to ask whether a job applicant is able to perform essential functions of the job as listed on the job description. It’s not acceptable to inquire about the applicant’s future childbearing plans or birth control.

Managers may ask an applicant to prove his or her ability to perform the manual labor, lifting and other physical requirements related to essential functions of the job, but they may not weed out applicants based on stereotypical assumptions about abilities based on the applicant’s appearance, Hare said.

Dori Meinert is senior writer for HR Magazine.

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