Hiring and firing? Avoid legal pitfalls

Posted by Ann Elwell on Jun 21, 2016

New business owners are often unprepared for the personnel issues that come with having employees. Human resources management can cause headaches and create legal difficulties if not handled properly.

That was the message from Lynette Weatherford, president of HR Advantage, Springfield, during her June 8 presentation at the Chamber’s 60 Minutes to Success lunch program. Weatherford walked through the hiring process, from interviews to what to do if termination becomes necessary. The key, she says, is knowing what steps to take and which actions to avoid.

Right candidate, right fit

Logically, the first step is finding the right person to hire. Weatherford says that the job opening should be posted as widely as possible—online job boards, newspaper, college career offices, trade magazines, websites and social media.

Once applications come in, it’s critical to know what questions to ask. Be consistent from candidate to candidate, and stick with questions that will actually provide insight into how well the job and the applicant match.

“What do these questions show an interviewer: ‘If you were an animal, what kind would you be and why?’ ‘If you were invited to a potluck dinner, what would you bring?’ The answer is nothing relevant to the job,” Weatherford says.

She recommends questions about previous experiences and proven results—how a candidate has handled deadlines or a difficult co-worker. Be sure to stick to job-related questions and avoid those related to race, religion, sex, age, national origin, disability or military status.

After the selection

Once you’ve found the right candidate, do the homework. That means both background and reference checks and, once an offer has been made, also could include drug screening, criminal background checks, credit checks and physical ability tests.

Don’t forget: The candidate must give permission for you to conduct background or reference checks. Weatherford recommends a cover letter on the application packet that clearly states what checks would be conducted and at what point in the process they would occur.

When you’ve made a selection, be sure to bring the new person into the fold. A new employee’s orientation should include steps that are often overlooked such as staff introductions, a full tour, selection of a staff mentor and discussion about the company’s culture.

Have the right paperwork on file for each new employee. The personnel file should include résumé and job application, interview notes, a signed job description, and required legal and payroll forms.

The termination process

Despite the best hiring practices, sometimes an employee just doesn’t fit. In these cases, certain procedures are called for.

One crucial step, Weatherford says, is a progressive discipline system that includes conversations about concerns on both sides and opportunities for performance improvement.

“Ask yourself these questions: Have I given the employee a chance to improve? Would I let go of any other employee for this same infraction? Do I have documentation of prior counseling?” she says.

Weatherford offers tips on handling the termination process:

  • Maintain thorough documentation of performance discussions, reviews and counseling sessions.
  • Have a witness present and stick to the facts of the termination.
  • Don’t apologize – stick to the facts.
  • Conclude by letting the employee know what to expect, including final paycheck and a contact for questions.

Following these steps, Weatherford says, will help companies avoid legal pitfalls that could otherwise accompany a professional parting of the ways.

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