Thursday, 4 December 2014

Avoiding Risk at All Stages of the Employment Life-Cycle

As 2014 nears its end, I thought I'd offer some general guidance for employers.

Like pretty much anything else, the employment relationship can be neatly packaged up into three parts: the beginning; the middle; and the end.  Each of these stages of the relationship can be characterized conceptually by a predominant theme.  For purposes of this post, I'll call them "Expectations", "Performance" and "Cessation".  What occurs at the Expectations stage will have the largest impact as it can significantly change how the contract is performed and what happens when it ends.  Likewise, the Performance phase will influence when and how the contract ends.  Once the relationship has reached the Cessation stage, there is little that can be done to alter the outcome, other than to manage risks that have already been created earlier in the employment life-cycle.

So, how do you significantly reduce the risks inherent in the employment relationship?  Let's look at each stage and the critical steps that employers should consider.


Prior to and at the time of hiring, employers need to consider how "expectations" are communicated to prospective or new employees.  Clear expectations eliminate misunderstandings and lay the groundwork for a transparent and accountable workplace.  Setting expectations takes some work, but removing ambiguity at the outset of the employment relationship sets the stage for employees to perform their duties and helps manage the risks (and costs) associated with ending employment.
  • Review job descriptions on a regular basis to ensure they accurately reflect the job as it is currently performed.  A role profile that does not align with the role may mislead a new employee as to the expectations for their performance.
  • Where appropriate, develop policies that are clear and unambiguous. Ensure that policies align with actual practices and procedures in the workplace and set reasonable expectations for both parties.  If a policy is difficult to enforce, it is likely to go by the boards.
  • Document variable pay programs, such as annual bonuses or incentives, and make sure that new hires are given an explanation of how they work.
  • Develop a solid, enforceable employment agreement.  Use plain language to spell out the terms covering wages, variable compensation, vacation and benefits entitlements, and the parties' rights and obligations on cessation of the contract.  Carefully review termination language in particular to ensure compliance with employment standards.  Failure to do so could lead to claims for 'reasonable notice' in the courts.
  • Ensure that all required documentation is reviewed with new employees and signed off before they commence employment.  If policies are referenced or incorporated into the employment agreement, ensure that new hires are provided with the policies and acknowledge having read and understood them.

Once the formalities of hiring are out of the way, the real hard work begins.  While there is much that can be said about how to get the best out of employees while they are working for the organization, I'd like to focus on just a handful of keys that are likely to improve productivity while reducing legal risks.
  • Whenever in doubt, be guided by fairness and reasonableness in administering the relationship.  It's sometimes easy to lose sight of the issue and focus on the employee, but this can prove disastrous. Enforce rules consistently, but with a contextual approach that weighs the circumstances, the history of the particular employee, how past issues were dealt with, and any mitigating or aggravating factors. Be prepared to be flexible in appropriate situations. Failure to insist on fairness can lead to morale issues (such as claims of favoritism or discrimination) and can also undermine the effectiveness of your workplace policies.
  • Provide good supervision. Sounds simple, but it isn't.  It starts with careful selection criteria when hiring or promoting supervisory and managerial staff. I would suggest that it's better to look for leaders rather than technical experts. Yes, experience in the field is important, but it's often hard to make an exceptional 'lone wolf' into a good manager, no matter how accomplished they are. Follow-up on supervisory hiring with training on the basics of managing people (including the basics of human resources and employee relations). Failing to provide solid supervision invariably leads to underperformance that is not managed (and cannot be relied on later as cause for termination) and a failure to keep an eye on the workplace (which often results in complaints of harassment or bullying).
  • Document, document, document. It's trite, but true. Failing to keep notes of conversations and coaching sessions can be costly later when you need to establish a pattern of inappropriate conduct or poor performance that you have tried to address.  Get in the habit of making brief notes to file, showing the date and time of discussions with employees. Ensure that all notes ultimately make it into a file that others can find later. Otherwise, you risk losing evidence that you'll need later when an employee challenges unwelcome discipline. 
  • Make sure that managers actually manage. This means bringing issues to employees' attention when they arise (not months later when patience has worn thin), documenting conversations about the issue, providing timelines for improvement, and following-up in a timely fashion.  Managing performance, behaviour and attendance are tedious and time-consuming processes, but they should be the primary expectation that is placed on supervisors and managers.

If the employer has paid proper attention to the details in the first two phases of the employment relationship, the third stage, Cessation, will typically be less risky and costly, and much more manageable.  Still, there are a few things to bear in mind.
  • If the employer will be terminating the employment relationship, be prepared to pay.  It can be very costly to allege 'just cause' for termination.  The courts and tribunals will only find cause in the clearest of cases and on very compelling evidence. If in doubt, terminate on a without cause basis (and move to the bullet point immediately below).
  • If there is a contractual termination provision in the employee's contract, ensure that you understand the employer's obligations and abide by them carefully.  No termination provision?  You'll have to choose between the statutory minimum (which is typically quite meagre), the employee's common law entitlement (typically quite generous) or something in between.  If in doubt, obtain legal advice.
  • Plan and prepare for the termination meeting to ensure that it is conducted in a professional and respectful manner.  Try to avoid ending employment on a Monday morning or a Friday afternoon (except in the most extreme cases), and be conscious of any occasions that could place the employer in a bad light (e.g., try not to terminate the employee on their birthday or in the weeks immediately preceding Christmas).  Hold the meeting somewhere that provides privacy and where other employees won't be alerted to what is going on. Ensure that you consider arrangements to get the employee home in the event that they carpool or won't be in any condition to drive. Avoid escorting the employee through areas where coworkers are present following the meeting.  Failure to abide by these relatively simple rules could lead to a claim for enhanced or added damages in the event the employee later alleges wrongful dismissal.
  • If the employee is looking to end the employment relationship, try to get their resignation notice in writing and verify that they have provided appropriate notice.  Ensure that they are given time to reconsider, particularly if they resign under stressful conditions or following a heated exchange. Whenever possible, conduct an exit interview to assess whether the climate in the workplace may have influenced the decision to leave.  It is valuable to find out whether there are unidentified issues that could lead the departing employee or others to raise concerns with harassment or bullying before you receive a claim.
  • Prior to any employee's departure, make sure that you recover company property.  In particular, smartphones, laptops, VPN tokens and system/application passwords should be obtained to avoid the potential for a disillusioned employee being tempted to take data or engage in other post-termination misdeeds.  Once the employee has departed, ensure that all access is removed and that passwords are changed, as necessary.
While the foregoing guidance is not exhaustive, and is no substitute for legal advice, it does provide an overview of some of the larger risk management issues that employers face.  Being proactive, setting clear expectations, and ensuring that those expectations are routinely met, will go a long way to avoiding or reducing many of those risks.

Does your organization need advice on how to reduce the HR risks it encounters?  Need guidance on a particularly thorny or complicated employment situation?  Contact Lance Ceaser for expert assistance.

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