In the film Evan Almighty everyone believes Evan has lost his mind when he begins building an ark next to his home to protect against an upcoming flood.  Right now, in Iowa, no one would proclaim him crazy.  Our recent flooding has once again wrecked havoc to homes and businesses throughout Iowa.  

So how do you build an ark to protect yourself from continually rising employment lawsuits?

1.  Treat Employees with Respect:  Seems like a basic philosophy but it is amazing how many employers forget to treat their employees with respect.  Employees that are humilated or treated in a disrespectful way are much more likely to sue your company. 

2.  Communicate with Your Employees:  First, make sure you have an effective employee handbook with up-to-date employment policies and publicize your policies to employees.  Make sure you follow your policies.  One of the easiest ways to land in an employee lawsuit is the failure to follow your employment policies.  Also make sure you have an open door policy where employees are allowed to voice their concerns or complaints.  Do not let complaints fester.  Deal with them right away.

3.  Implement an Effective Unlawful Discrimination and Harassment Policy:  Your harassment policy should include more than just sexual harassment.  There may be other forms of harassment based upon race, religion, age or disability.  It is also critical to consistently train employees and supervisors regarding unlawful harassment and discrimination.  You should consider training employees on harassment and discrimination issues at least once every year.

4.  Document, Document, Document:  The importance of good record keeping cannot be overstated.  If you don’t have something in writing, chances are a jury or judge may not believe it happened.  Be sure to document even verbal warnings and maintain an appropriate personnel file in order to make sure the documentation is not lost. 

5.  Conduct Honest Employee Evaluations on a Regular Basis:  Unless your company is headquartered in Lake Wobegon every employee is probably not above average.  Evaluations can be valuable proof in an employment lawsuit.  Make sure poor performance is properly documented.  Otherwise, the judge or jury will not believe you when you say the employee performed poorly but all their evaluations are excellent.  You should conduct the evaluations on a regular basis, usually at least once per year.  I recently represented a client sued for discrimination.  A key in defending the case were the honest performance appraisals performed b management.

6. Do Not Retaliate:  Employers are often blindsided by retaliation claims.  There are a number of proactive measures you can take in order to avoid liability for retaliation claims.  It is important to avoid retaliation because recent cases have lowered the burden for plaintiffs to prove their retaliation claims and the number of retaliation claims from plaintiffs is continually on the rise.

7.  Take Action and Investigate Promptly: If a complaint arises, make sure you take the complaint seriously and investigate promptly.  A quick and thorough investigation may help eliminate problems before you have a real mess.  You will need to consider who should conduct the internal investigation.

8.  Compy with Wage and Hour Laws:  Ensure your exempt employees (i.e., salaried employees) are properly classified as exempt under the law.  Wage and hour claims are also on the rise and could result in a class action against your company.  This is a common area of the law that is ignored by many employers and could result in significant liability.

9.  Review and update your employee handbook and/or policies:  At least you should review your policies to incorporate any changes in the law or your manner of doing business.

These simple steps will go a long ways to reducing employee lawsuits.  To ensure that your company has done everything it can to avoid employee lawsuits, you should have your employment policies, training and practices reviewed by your employment lawyer.

*This post originally appeared as the Seven Ways to Avoid Employee Lawsuits from January of 2007 but this updated version is worth repeating.  It also includes some ideas from Anthony Zaller of the California Workforce Resource Blog who had commented on my original post. 

Photo on flickr by Whisper Photograhy.