What is HR Compliance?

Running a business comes with no shortage of perks: the freedom to be your own boss, invest in an idea, steer its trajectory, and, with a little luck, create wealth. It has its challenges, too. Competition may be fierce. Demand for what you offer may be low. Costs may not be sustainable. But even if everything else is going your way, there’s one challenge that’s ever-present. We’re talking, of course, about HR compliance.

Defining HR Compliance

HR compliance is the work of ensuring that your employment practices conform to federal, state, and local laws. This work requires learning which laws apply to your organization and understanding what they require you to do. That’s easier said than done.

HR compliance is truly an art. It requires knowledge, skill, and cooperation. You have to be able to decipher legalese, know where to go to ask the right questions and create policies and procedures that minimize business risk. You have to ensure that everyone from the executive team to newly minted managers knows what they can and cannot do. You have to conduct investigations and enforce your rules consistently. And all this is just the bare minimum—necessary, but not enough to create a truly successful culture.

The work of compliance is never entirely done. Not only do new legal requirements appear on the regular, but, as you’ll read below, compliance obligations are often unclear. While some compliance obligations are definitive, others are unresolved, and a good number of laws require you to make a judgment call. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Why HR Compliance Can’t Always Be Assured

Some employment laws take the form of “Do this” or “Don’t do that.” The requirements may be simple, like minimum wage, or complex, like FMLA, but either way, there’s usually no real question about what you need to do or not do. Compliance with these laws is pretty straightforward. Don’t pay less than the minimum wage. Provide leave to eligible employees for the reasons that qualify, continue their health benefits (if applicable), and return them to their position when their leave ends. As long as you’re clear on the details, you’re not likely to lose sleep wondering if your policies and procedures are compliant.

Sometimes, however, those details are unsettled. Lawmakers don’t always specify everything a law requires before it passes or takes effect. Even when laws seem clear, trying to put them into practice often raises a lot of questions. And the legislature isn’t the only source of law: regulatory agencies demand their say, and courts get involved, too. To complicate matters, these branches of government don’t always agree with each other, and what they say today may not be what they say tomorrow. Keeping up with the latest official guidance takes time and persistence. It can feel like a marathon when what you want is a quick sprint to the answer. You have other demands on your time, after all. 

Finally, a lot of employment laws have standards you have to follow, but they don’t tell you how. Neither the IRS nor the DOL, for example, tells you whether your workers are employees or independent contractors—unless there’s an audit or complaint. Instead, these agencies publish tests with general criteria that you use to make case-by-case determinations.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) works this way, too. Under the ADA, an employer is required to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, with a few exceptions. One of the exceptions is that the accommodation doesn’t create an undue hardship on the employer’s business. The basic definition of undue hardship is an action that creates a significant difficulty or expense. Although the law provides factors to consider in making this determination, the onus is on you to decide whether an expense or difficulty from accommodation is significant. And, ultimately, your conclusion could be challenged in court.

Why HR Compliance Looks Like This

If HR compliance seems convoluted, that’s because it is. Our current legal landscape is the result of three competing philosophies about how the workplace should be governed, who should govern it, and whose rights in the workplace should be prioritized in the law.

Owner Control

According to the first view, business owners should have control over their workplaces and the work that takes place for the simple reason that they own the business. It’s their property, and as owners, they should have the legal right to govern it. Employees have no right to control aspects of the workplace because the workplace isn’t theirs. They don’t own it. It’s not their property. If their desires don’t align with the owners, or if they don’t like the terms and conditions of their employment, they can and should go elsewhere.

Of course, an owner might employ managers or an executive team to make decisions about who to hire and fire, what to pay, how to assign work, and other such matters, but in principle, the owner is still in charge. Advocates of this view include the economist Milton Friedman who, in 1970, famously wrote that corporate executives have a direct responsibility to conduct business according to the desires of the owners. The will of the owners reigns supreme. 

Worker Control

According to the second view, workers should have a say in the decisions that get made simply because those decisions affect them and their livelihoods. In this line of thinking, the governance of the workplace should adhere to the principles of democracy, although proponents for this view differ on how democracy in the workplace should be practiced.

In the 1930s, Senator Robert F. Wagner introduced the National Labor Relations Act to guarantee the “freedom of action of the worker” and ensure that workers were “free in the economic as well as the political field.” And, today, talk of democratizing the workplace usually refers to bolstering unions. But there are other proposals to note. Some champions of workplace democracy, like Senator Elizabeth Warren, have pushed for employee representation on corporate boards. Others favor cooperative models in which the division between employers and employees doesn’t exist.   

Full-fledged workplace democracy is still a fringe view, though. The very definition of an employee remains a worker who does not have the right to control what the work is, how it’s done, or how it’s compensated. However much authority employees are given to make decisions, however much influence they have over their superiors, they are not legally in charge. 

Societal Control

Advocates of the third view argue that the government has an interest in exercising some measure of control over the work and the workplace. In the employer-employee relationship, employers typically have significantly more power than employees—especially an employee acting as an individual. Frances Perkins, who served as Secretary of Labor and was a key architect of the New Deal, believed that government “should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.” She saw a role for legislatures in countering long hours, low wages, and other conditions unfavorable to employees. 

How These Philosophies Have Played Out

In the United States, HR compliance seems convoluted and confusing because, well, it is. It’s the result of these three competing and ultimately incompatible philosophies. Government action with respect to employment has tried to empower workers and afford them certain rights, protections, and freedoms in the workplace, all while preserving the employer’s control over their business.

We can see this balancing act in the differences among state laws. Some states prioritize the right of owners to control their workforces and are loath to restrict that right through legislation. Other states act out of what they see as a duty to secure the rights of workers. Imposing obligations on employers doesn’t bother them.

We also see this balancing act in the way that employment laws tend to set parameters rather than dictate exactly what employers must do. You can pay employees whatever you want, so long as you pay at least the minimum, offer an overtime premium when applicable, and meet equal pay requirements. You can theoretically terminate employment for any reason or no reason at all (though we don’t recommend it), but you can’t fire someone for an illegal reason. Even laws that require a new practice, such as paid leave, allow flexibility provided the minimum conditions are met.

Takeaways

First, when you’re assessing your compliance obligations, understand that not all compliance obligations are clearly delineated or settled by law. Unsettling as that may be, it’s how our system has been set up. In those cases, you’ll have to weigh your options and the risks involved and then make a decision. Sometimes you may need legal advice in addition to HR guidance. Remember, though, that despite all the many employment laws on the books and in the imaginations of legislators, the system is designed to keep employers in charge of their work and workplaces. You can’t eliminate all risk, but by understanding the nuances and open questions, you can significantly minimize it.

Second, document your actions and decisions. It only takes an employee filing a complaint for enforcement agencies to get involved, but you are better protected if you can quickly and clearly explain to them the reason for your actions.

Third, evaluate whether your policies, procedures, and practices are satisfactory to employees. No employment law gets written in a vacuum, and no law is truly inevitable. The Fair Labor Standards Act came to be because workers and the general public felt that labor standards were unfair. Today we wouldn’t have people pushing for predictive scheduling laws if the general perception was that schedules in hospitality, retail, and restaurants were already sufficiently predictable. Harassment prevention training wouldn’t be mandatory (where it is) if sexual harassment weren’t widespread.

Fourth, lead by example. Make good employee relations a key part of your brand and competitive advantage. Employees have higher expectations today than they used to. Meet those expectations and motivate other employers to do the same, and you may find that the compliance landscape of the future is less winding and boggy than it could have been.

Finally, spend some time each day on our HR Support Center to learn about your compliance obligations. Our laws section breaks down federal and state employment laws in a way that laypeople can understand, and the News Desk keeps you up to speed on the latest compliance obligations and contingencies you should consider. HR compliance is an art, and the first step to mastering it is learning what it entails and how it works.

Article content provided by My HR Support Center

FFCRA Leave – Significant Rule Changes

A federal court in New York recently struck down four federal Department of Labor rules related to the leaves provided by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). As a result, certain aspects of the FFCRA are now more favorable to employees. Unfortunately, it’s not clear if the ruling applies nationwide or only in the Southern District of New York, where the court is located. Until there is further activity in the case—which may clarify whether the rules remain intact throughout the rest of the country—we recommend that employers err on the side of caution when administering FFCRA leaves and assume these particular rules no longer apply.

What is clear is that these four rules definitely do not apply to the counties of Bronx, Dutchess, New York, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan, and Westchester (i.e., the Southern District of New York).

Here are the rules that the court invalidated:

The requirement that work be available for an employee to use leave

  1. DOL Rule: The DOL said that for an employee to use Emergency Paid Sick Leave (EPSL) or Emergency Family Medical Leave (EFMLA, aka EFMLEA), the employer had to have work available for them during the time they needed leave. For instance, if an employee was furloughed while sick with COVID-19, they would not be eligible for EPSL.
  2. The Court’s Ruling: Availability of work is irrelevant. If an employee is still employed, whether on the schedule or not, they should be allowed to use FFCRA leave for qualifying reasons.

The requirement that employers agree to intermittent leave

  1. DOL Rule: Employees must get approval from their employer to use intermittent leave to care for their children when their school or place of care is unavailable because of COVID-19.
  2. The Court’s Ruling: If an employee needs intermittent leave (partial weeks or partial days off) to care for their child whose school or place of care is unavailable because of COVID-19, the employer must allow it.

The requirement that employees provide documentation before taking leave

  1. DOL Rule: Employers could require that employees provide certain documentation before being allowed to take FFCRA leave or before designating the leave as EPSL or EFMLA.
  2. The Court’s Ruling: Employers can still require documentation (which is necessary to get their tax credit), but they can’t prevent an employee from starting leave until the documentation is received. The law clearly states that an employee must provide notice “as is practicable” when taking EFMLA and after the first workday of leave when taking EPSL.

The definition of health care provider, for the purpose of exemption from leave

  1. DOL Rule: The DOL defined health care providers very broadly, to include anyone who works for a healthcare entity and many who contract with one. (The rule was so broad that a custodian working at a drugstore or an English professor at a university with a medical school could be exempt.)
  2. The Court’s Ruling: The definition is too broad. However, the court did not provide a new definition. We recommend that employers apply the exemption only to those employees capable of directly providing healthcare services.

We will be watching closely for activity in this case and will let employers know if and when things change or become clearer. 

Article content provided by My HR Support Center

Don’t Forget to Document, Document, Document

With all of the changes everyone has had to make over the past few months, not to mention the heightened stress we’re all feeling, it may be tempting to let certain practices slide or be less strict about following particular workplace policies. Flexibility during crisis situations may make sense in certain situations, but there are some areas where you don’t want to fall short of your usual standards. Documentation is certainly one of those.

Documenting decisions you make as an employer can feel like an extra, unnecessary step. It is additional work, after all, and that work adds up. Nevertheless, documentation is an important part of risk management, and the price of not documenting your actions can far outweigh the costs of doing so, especially if an employee were to ever allege discrimination.

When we talk about discrimination in the workplace, we’re not referring simply to the act of treating people differently or giving someone preferential treatment. Employers rightly treat individuals differently all the time. People are placed in different jobs, receive different pay, and work different hours. Some have better parking spots than others, vegetarians may get a special meal when lunch is ordered for the office, and the big boss may get away with a gruff personality while others are expected to be more cordial. 

Rather, when we talk about the discrimination that employers need to avoid and prevent, it’s discrimination that’s based on an employee’s inclusion in a protected class. A number of laws at both the federal and state levels make workplace discrimination unlawful if it is based on race, color, age (over 40), sex, pregnancy, religion, disability, national origin, ethnic background, genetic information (including that of family members), military service, and citizenship or immigration status, among other classes.

The best way to avoid discrimination is to base employment decisions only on factors that are job-related, and this is where documentation comes in. Documenting the job-related reasons for your business decisions helps show that your decisions were not done for discriminatory and illegal reasons. Absent that documentation, you have nothing to show the legitimate basis of your decisions if any of your employment decisions are challenged. That makes it harder to prove that you weren’t discriminating unlawfully. Below are a few areas where documentation is especially important.

Discipline and Termination

Documenting all the actions you take to warn an employee about poor performance or unacceptable behavior before terminating their employment demonstrates that you made a good faith effort to help the employee meet expectations and avoid termination. You’re on safest ground terminating employment if you can show that the employee understood what was expected of them and what would happen if they failed to improve.

Investigations

Make sure that you document every step of an investigation as well as the resulting actions taken so you can show that you fulfilled your legal obligations. Having a clear record will also help you ensure that similar situations are handled consistently in the future.

Hiring

Employers sometimes get into trouble with the law by asking questions of job candidates that reveal their membership in a protected class. Asking about church attendance, for example, may be intended to ascertain weekend availability, but it gives the applicant an opportunity to claim they were discriminated against. Hiring decisions should be based on job-related factors. Proper documentation shows that they were. 

Promotions and Pay

Documentation here should show that pay and promotion practices are systemized and based only on bona fide job-related reasons. The federal Equal Pay Act requires men and women in the same workplace be given equal pay for equal work while Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires that employers not discriminate based on someone’s inclusion in a protected class. If you lack documentation explaining why one employee is paid more than another in the same position, your risk of being sued (and losing) goes up substantially. 

Article content provided by My HR Support Center

Can we help you with your documentation?