Business owners are often faced with many difficult workplace situations. This can include addressing an employee’s personal appearance, determining how and when to allow the use of social media, and even deciding how to handle an office romance. To avoid potential lawsuits and penalties, employers must understand employees’ rights and proactively address these situations in a consistent fashion.
Many employers struggle with developing workplace policies that create a safe, productive, and inclusive work environment, while also upholding their company’s image. Additionally, when they do develop policies to manage these issues, they aren’t always sure if they’re appropriate, or even enforceable. Ultimately, a delicate balance must be established between maintaining a safe and professional work environment and employees’ rights under various employment laws.
A host of “gray areas”
Why do employers encounter so many “gray areas” when developing the policies that are meant to help manage their employees? In many instances, there’s not a specific law that prevents employers from having certain policies. Rather, it comes down to how the policies are drafted and enforced.
Today, a lot of people meet their significant others at work. According to a recent CareerBuilder survey, 39% of workers said they’ve dated a co-worker at least once over the course of their career.
Workplace relationships may raise concerns related to sexual harassment, favoritism, and conflicts of interest. While it may be difficult to enforce an outright ban on employees becoming romantically involved, there are certain measures you can take to limit negative consequences. Employers can generally discourage workers from entering relationships when there might be a conflict of interest, such as a supervisor-employee relationship, or an HR-manager relationship.
Regardless of offering a policy specifically addressing office dating, a written policy prohibiting sexual harassment is a must. It should provide examples of prohibited conduct, address consequences for violating the policy, and establish a clear procedure – with multiple avenues – for employees to raise concerns and complaints. Managers should encourage employees to report inappropriate conduct without fear of retaliation to a supervisor, HR representative, or another manager who has been trained on the appropriate procedures.
Personal appearance, body art, piercings
Following last year’s Abercombie vs. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) decision, in which an applicant alleged that she was denied a job because she wore a headscarf for religious reasons, the U.S. Supreme Court found that employers may be held liable for refusing to hire an employee if their motive is to avoid accommodating religious practices.
To reduce risk, employers should clearly state their dress code in an employee handbook. Additionally, dress codes that restrict employees from wearing certain types of clothing, or that prohibit body art, could violate nondiscrimination laws. This could be the case if an employer fails to provide a religious accommodation for employees whose dress conflicts with the policy due to the employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs. It’s important to review these issues on a case-by-case basis, provide an avenue for employees to seek accommodations, and ensure religious beliefs are being considered.
Smoking and e-cigarettes
Many states ban smoking tobacco in the workplace, certain outdoor spaces, and within a certain distance of building entrances. Some states have extended their indoor smoking ban to include e-cigarettes. Regardless of whether your state has a specific provision, employers are free to prohibit smoking in the workplace and on company property.
When it comes to smoking bans, be sure to clearly communicate the policy in writing and post “no smoking” signs in conspicuous locations on company property for employees and visitors. Also make sure the policy is consistent with state and local smoking bans. Some states require certain establishments to post these notices and many state laws prohibit smoking within a certain distance of entrances and ventilation systems. Also, due to the growing popularity of e-cigarettes, employers may want to update their smoking policies to address any restrictions on their use they might choose to set.
The impact of social media has exploded as employers use it in the workplace for recruitment, business, and marketing purposes. Chances are, your employees are also using social media to communicate with family, friends, co-workers, and even clients, both on and off the job. This blurs the lines between personal and professional use.
As a result, workplace policies that limit the use of social media during work time and prohibit employees from tarnishing the company’s reputation through social media postings are becoming more common. Such policies, however, are fraught with risk. When it comes to restricting social media use, some employers choose to prohibit it during work time. Or, to help promote productivity, others choose to block access to social media sites on company-provided equipment.
Currently, there are several states that expressly prohibit employers from asking employees, and applicants, for login information to their personal social media accounts. Even if your state does not have a specific law on the issue, it’s not considered a best practice to request this information, or to require employees to log into their accounts in your presence.
To limit social media use in your business, craft a policy that provides sufficient details and context to make it clear that the rules do not infringe on protected activity. Then train your employees on the policy to reduce the risk of misuse. Updating these policies regularly is also a good practice given changing technology and evolving guidance.
ADP® can provide expert guidance Policies and clear communication are important, especially as your company grows. ADP can help you understand what other businesses are doing and assist in creating policies that align with both the law and your company’s culture. ADP can also provide tips on communicating your policies to employees and training your managers. And, if a challenging situation arises, ADP HR specialists can help you through it.
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