CEO Adviser: Human Resources

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

The human resources department can often be the neglected stepchild for businesses, receiving attention only when problems arise. But the follies of a neglected HR department can be costly. Here are three ways toward a more strategic, forward-looking approach to HR. 

1. Conduct an HR Audit.
Human resources is a vast area encompassing everything from the commencement of employment (recruitment, hiring, onboarding) to the end of employment (succession planning, retirement, termination) and many things in between (performance management, investigations, discipline). With so much to cover, you might be wondering where to start. 
One obvious answer is an HR self-audit, which can help identify potential legal pitfalls, prioritize areas in need of an overhaul and actively address personnel issues. A comprehensive HR audit allows for development of a long-term strategy for implementing new policies and practices, and making necessary or recommended changes to the existing HR landscape.  

Before embarking on an HR audit, the organization should be mindful of the types of evidence that the audit might bring to light and how that evidence might play in the hands of governmental investigators or a litigious employee. The purpose of the audit, after all, is to expose problem areas needing attention. Consider engaging a legal professional to spearhead the audit, which provides not only the benefits of legal oversight but also the protections of attorney-client privilege. 

Although an audit can be a daunting task, it is an excellent tool for organizations looking to ensure HR compliance by identifying areas for strategic improvement and prevention.

2. Update Rest Break Policies and Practices.
Wage and hour class actions have become much more prevalent, and missed rest breaks are just one area of potential vulnerability for businesses employing a large number of nonexempt workers, meaning those entitled to minimum wage, overtime and meal and rest break protections under state or federal law. Businesses can do several things to help prevent the issue of missed rest breaks from rearing its ugly head. 

As with many HR conundrums, part of the answer lies in your written policies and procedures. Review and, as necessary, update your policies to make clear that employees are required to take their rest breaks. Remember: Employees can never waive their rest breaks. Employees can, however, take their rest breaks intermittently if their duties allow for rest, relaxation or personal activities for short intervals adding up to 10 minutes every four hours. But managers and employees must be on the same page about whether the employee is expected to take intermittent (as opposed to scheduled) breaks, and employees must be provided a 10-minute break on occasions when intermittent breaks are not feasible. In the event that an employee does miss a rest break despite these safeguards, the employee needs an avenue to report the issue so that the payroll department can ensure that the missed break — in addition to the time spent working through the break — is compensated and is counted as hours worked for overtime purposes.  

3. Reexamine Your Training Program.
Effective HR training helps to avoid unwanted conduct or misunderstandings that lead to employment litigation and serves as the backbone of a solid defense should litigation arise. Chances are you are already providing training as part of the onboarding process to orient new employees. But the training should also educate employees about personnel policies governing key topics such as harassment, discrimination and retaliation. Get the most from your training dollar by ensuring that your training is reflective of employment law developments, is given at regular intervals to existing employees, provides additional content directed only to supervisors and managers (who can face personal liability and expose the company to strict liability), and incorporates wage and hour concepts with more traditional training subjects. 

These few steps toward a more strategic HR approach can pay dividends in the form of litigation prevention, improved employee morale, and attraction and retention of top talent. 

Deidra Nguyen is an attorney in the Seattle office of Littler Mendelson. Reach her at 206.381.4931 or danguyen@littler.com.

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