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Help legally protect your business: Train your supervisors

Employers know that there are many employment laws that govern the management of employees in the workplace. Compliance with these laws is critical for lowering the risk of legal liability from government agencies that enforce these laws and from employees themselves. Employers typically hire certain staff members to manage human resources and assist with compliance, and it is easy for employers to think that their human resources departments will handle all compliance-related issues.

The reality, however, is that almost all litigated employment disputes result from interactions between a complaining employee and his or her supervisor. From a legal perspective, whatever a supervisor does to an employee who is under his or her supervision generally will be attributed directly to the employer unless the employer steps in to correct the action. As a result, it is not possible to delegate the task of compliance with employment laws solely to the human resources department; instead, compliance must be based on a partnership between an employer’s human resources department and its supervisors.

The recent case of Hefti v. Brunk Industries Inc., 133 F. Supp. 3d 1173 (E.D. Wis. 2015), provides a good example of the duties placed upon a supervisor of other employees. In this case, an employee requested leave under the Family Medical Leave Act so that he could drive his son to and from school.

The employer’s human resources department properly handled the employee’s FMLA request and granted the leave. The employee’s supervisor, however, was frustrated with the employee because the leave interrupted the workday and the supervisor felt that the employee’s leave was unfair to the employer. The supervisor showed this frustration through sharp comments as well as eye rolls and heavy sighs when the employee submitted his FMLA paperwork. When the employee was later terminated, the employer took the position that the termination was caused by performance-related reasons, and the employer had extensive documentation demonstrating the employee’s history of performance problems.

The court, however, concluded that there was enough evidence to support the employee’s claim that the employer interfered with his FMLA rights and that he was fired in retaliation for exercising those rights, making the employee’s termination unlawful. The court further concluded that the evidence was sufficient to support an inference that the employer’s claimed reason for terminating the employee was a pretext for discrimination, and it allowed the case to proceed to a jury trial. Notably, the court’s conclusions were based solely upon the supervisor’s actions, and it reached these conclusions despite the proper actions of the employer’s human resources department.

As workplaces become more diverse, the role of the supervisor becomes even more important and complex. Supervisors are responsible not only for their own conduct but also for the conduct of the employees they supervise. If a supervisor manages an employee in a manner that violates legal standards, this will result in what is known as “quid pro quo,” or direct illegal discrimination. Supervisors are also responsible for monitoring whether co-workers are acting in a manner that creates a hostile work environment for other employees, and supervisors must address complaints and manage these situations to protect any victimized employee.

As evidenced in recent national news, there are cultural fault lines regarding race, gender, gender identity and religion that can create legal liability if not kept out of the workplace. The task of noticing and regulating these issues lies at the feet of the supervisors who are in the trenches with employees.

In light of the magnitude of supervisors’ roles, training is critical to provide supervisors with the tools they need to comply with employment laws. A typical supervisor is an expert in his or her particular job function — not in employment laws or even in managing employees. This is why proper training is so crucial in the workplace: it is how the human resources department can educate supervisors on what to do in face-to-face encounters with supervised employees to comply with employment laws. In addition, in reviewing employment claims, courts often consider the presence or absence of employment law training to be a significant factor in evaluating the validity of an employee’s complaint against his or her employer.

Supervisors should be regularly trained on at least the four major employment laws that govern the workplace: the FMLA, the Fair Labor Standards Act, Title VII (discrimination/harassment) and the Americans With Disabilities Act. Additional training is especially vital as workplaces continue to become more diverse in terms of protected classes under Title VII and other laws, such as race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age and disability.

All employees who supervise other employees, including C-suite employees, should be required to attend training, and their attendance should be documented. The training should focus on what supervisors need to know from a practical standpoint rather than on the technical details of the law that are managed by human resources, and the training should serve as a bridge to support the partnership between supervisors and the human resources department.

Training can be conducted in a variety of ways, including through internal resources; however, Woods, Fuller, Shultz & Smith PC regularly provides employment law training to supervisors from a wide range of employers. An employer might quickly dismiss this idea as too expensive, but because Woods Fuller has experience and expertise in employment law, it can provide cost-effective training that is tailored to address the specific needs of each particular employer.

For information on employment law and available training programs, contact Heather Springer, heather.springer@woodsfuller.com.

August 30, 2017