Keep on the Right Side of the Law When You Hire Employees

In the current weak economic environment, competition for jobs is intense. There may be dozens of candidates for each job opening, and hiring companies will have their pick. Even in times like these, however, employers must be vigilant about obeying the law when they make hiring decisions. Charges of illegal discrimination in hiring may become more likely during a tough job market. It is essential that employers follow federal and state laws that regulate what factors they may consider in the hiring process. Those who focus on the wrong things may find themselves the targets of government inquiries.

Several federal laws address discrimination in hiring:

* The Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits an employer from refusing to hire, firing, or otherwise discriminating against employees age 40 or older, solely on the basis of age. For example, it is illegal for an employer to offer a benefit such as vision insurance to younger workers but not to older ones.

* The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 forbids discrimination against disabled workers or job applicants. Under this law, an employer cannot refuse to hire a person who has difficulty walking solely on that basis; the employer must have another, legitimate reason.

* The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, pregnancy, sex stereotyping, and sexual harassment of workers. Decades ago, an employer could fire a woman for becoming pregnant. The Civil Rights Act outlawed such actions.

Although these laws have been in effect for several years, some employers still try to get around them. In 2008, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission leveled penalties against employers in the amount of $83 million for age discrimination; $57 million for discrimination against disabled workers; $12 million for discrimination against pregnant women; $79 million for race discrimination; $109 million for sex discrimination; and $25 million for discrimination on the basis of national origin.

What are valid considerations for an employer to use in hiring decisions? Instead of focusing on an applicant’s age, the employer should look at her track record of performance, accomplishments and continuous learning. Rather than assuming that she won’t work at a fast rate or will be slow to adopt new technology, the employer should find out through job simulations, reference checking, and testing. Instead of looking at an applicant’s disabilities (difficulty walking, for instance), the employer should look at his job skills, such as ability to calm angry customers and quickly troubleshoot problems. Rather than ask an applicant whether she is a Christian or a Wicca or an adherent of any other religion, ask what she did to generate leads and close sales when the economy slipped into recession.

Prior to conducting interviews, employers should review with all involved personnel the legal restrictions on what they may ask or say when speaking with applicants. If necessary, training on effective and legal interviewing techniques should be given to these employees beforehand. It should be emphasized that interviewers need to focus on the tasks involved in the job and the applicant’s ability to perform them.

No matter how much preparation and training an employer does, things can still go wrong. It is important that businesses carry employment practices liability insurance from a financially strong insurance company. A good insurance agent can obtain multiple coverage quotes, give advice on the various coverage features, and discuss the claims-handling performance of different companies.

Hiring new employees is always a difficult and uncertain proposition. Finding the right person for the job can be tricky. Complying with legal parameters can be trickier, but it is essential. By avoiding illegally discriminatory practices, employers can build a strong workforce and stay out of regulators’ crosshairs.

New Study Surveys Teen Driving Attitudes

Many teens do not take personal responsibility for safe driving and continue to engage in dangerous driving behaviors, this according to a new survey commissioned by Allstate Insurance. The survey also revealed that while the majority of teens polled were making New Year’s resolutions about getting better grades, or exercising more, only a small number of them were resolving to be safer drivers.

Ninety percent of the teens surveyed said they hoped their friends would be safer on the road in 2008; but only 11 percent answered that “driving more safely” was one of their personal New Year’s resolutions. Thirty-four percent of teens surveyed said that they had been frightened as a passenger because the driver was being careless, but did not say anything to the driver.

Fifty-seven percent of the respondents said they had driven more than 10 miles per hour over the speed limit, 22 percent admitted to having raced another vehicle, and 19 percent reported receiving a traffic ticket. Eighteen percent of the teens surveyed said they had been a passenger in a car being driven by a teen who was under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.

While the teens that were polled were willing to break the law, they were not as agreeable to looking the other way when it came to their friends. Forty-one percent of the respondents wanted their friends to stop engaging in unsafe practices including driving without seatbelts and speeding. More than two-thirds of teens surveyed said they wanted their friends to avoid technology distractions, such as text messaging, talking on a cell phone, and scrolling through an MP3 player, while driving.

There was an important positive outcome revealed by the Allstate survey; more teenagers are familiar with driver’s contracts, which means parents are taking a more active role in promoting driving safety. Approximately 30 percent of teens that have heard of these agreements have signed one. The researchers added that the dialogue opened by discussing the contract can be just as important as the signed agreement itself. However, if the contract is to be truly effective, that dialogue between parent and teen must be ongoing.

When parents start a dialogue with their teenage drivers, they can influence their child’s behavior. The survey indicated that almost half of the teens polled are having ‘good conversations’ with their parents about the importance of safe driving. But one conversation is not enough. Such dialogue needs to be frequent and meaningful if it is to deter teen drivers from engaging in unsafe driving behaviors.

You Wear It Well: Dress Codes in the Workplace

As the manager of a business, you want to focus on those things that drive success – productivity, innovation, performance, and strategy. As you work to grow the business, you probably do not want to deal with more mundane office matters. Sometimes, however, these issues can have a major impact on employee morale, and they must be handled well. One such issue is the employee dress code. It would be nice if all employees used common sense every day and wore tasteful, professional clothing. Taste and professionalism, however, can be in the eye of the beholder. It is likely that your organization needs some kind of guidance on appropriate dress.

If the organization has an employee handbook, it probably has a section on acceptable dress for the workplace. Is the policy too vague to be useful or overly specific? Does it comply with legal requirements? Does it require dress that is more formal than necessary given the amount of customer contact employees have? Does it allow clothing that is too informal for regular customer contact? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, consider updating it. If not, make sure that you are enforcing it. Also, it may be wise to periodically remind employees of the dress code policy. This will inform new employees and reinforce the policy with veterans.

The organization should enforce the dress code without partiality. Individuals and groups of employees should be treated equally. Federal employment laws and regulations permit employers to set employee dress codes and to treat men and women differently within social norms. It is acceptable to require men to cut their hair while not making the same demand of women. It may not be acceptable to require women to wear skirts or men to wear uniforms while not making equivalent demands of the other sex.

Be aware that federal and state laws protect employees from discrimination on the basis of religion. Employers must make reasonable accommodations to employees who want to dress a certain way for religious observance reasons. Some men may cover their heads or wear beards for this reason; women may wear clothing that almost completely covers them up; employees of both sexes may wear certain pieces of jewelry. Unless complying with these requests would pose an undue hardship for the organization, the employees’ wishes must be honored. Employers may refuse such requests if the clothing or style creates a safety hazard; in most other cases, they must make the accommodation.

On the other hand, the law does not require employers to allow workers to display tattoos and body piercing. Rather, employers are free to make business decisions about the display of these styles. Some employers may permit it for employees who seldom or never interact with customers. Others may permit it for everyone, especially if their customers frequently have tattoos or piercings. Still others may decide that it is inappropriate for their businesses in all cases. The decision is entirely the employer’s, based on the balance between business needs and the need to attract and retain good employees.

This is really what dress codes are all about. Every business projects an image, and how its employees dress affects that image. Managers naturally want to put their best foot forward with customers. At the same time, a good workforce is not easy to build and retain. A too-strict dress code will repel good job candidates and may cause valuable employees to consider leaving. Inflexibility may violate anti-discrimination laws and inspire workers to file lawsuits. It is in an employer’s best interest to develop a dress code that reflects well on the business and keeps employees happy.

You Wear It Well: Dress Codes in the Workplace

As the manager of a business, you want to focus on those things that drive success – productivity, innovation, performance, and strategy. As you work to grow the business, you probably do not want to deal with more mundane office matters. Sometimes, however, these issues can have a major impact on employee morale, and they must be handled well. One such issue is the employee dress code. It would be nice if all employees used common sense every day and wore tasteful, professional clothing. Taste and professionalism, however, can be in the eye of the beholder. It is likely that your organization needs some kind of guidance on appropriate dress.

If the organization has an employee handbook, it probably has a section on acceptable dress for the workplace. Is the policy too vague to be useful or overly specific? Does it comply with legal requirements? Does it require dress that is more formal than necessary given the amount of customer contact employees have? Does it allow clothing that is too informal for regular customer contact? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, consider updating it. If not, make sure that you are enforcing it. Also, it may be wise to periodically remind employees of the dress code policy. This will inform new employees and reinforce the policy with veterans.

The organization should enforce the dress code without partiality. Individuals and groups of employees should be treated equally. Federal employment laws and regulations permit employers to set employee dress codes and to treat men and women differently within social norms. It is acceptable to require men to cut their hair while not making the same demand of women. It may not be acceptable to require women to wear skirts or men to wear uniforms while not making equivalent demands of the other sex.

Be aware that federal and state laws protect employees from discrimination on the basis of religion. Employers must make reasonable accommodations to employees who want to dress a certain way for religious observance reasons. Some men may cover their heads or wear beards for this reason; women may wear clothing that almost completely covers them up; employees of both sexes may wear certain pieces of jewelry. Unless complying with these requests would pose an undue hardship for the organization, the employees’ wishes must be honored. Employers may refuse such requests if the clothing or style creates a safety hazard; in most other cases, they must make the accommodation.

On the other hand, the law does not require employers to allow workers to display tattoos and body piercing. Rather, employers are free to make business decisions about the display of these styles. Some employers may permit it for employees who seldom or never interact with customers. Others may permit it for everyone, especially if their customers frequently have tattoos or piercings. Still others may decide that it is inappropriate for their businesses in all cases. The decision is entirely the employer’s, based on the balance between business needs and the need to attract and retain good employees.

This is really what dress codes are all about. Every business projects an image, and how its employees dress affects that image. Managers naturally want to put their best foot forward with customers. At the same time, a good workforce is not easy to build and retain. A too-strict dress code will repel good job candidates and may cause valuable employees to consider leaving. Inflexibility may violate anti-discrimination laws and inspire workers to file lawsuits. It is in an employer’s best interest to develop a dress code that reflects well on the business and keeps employees happy.

Think Twice Before Drinking and Driving

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently released data showing that from 2001-2005, an average of 36 fatalities occurred per day on America’s roadways as a result of crashes involving an alcohol-impaired driver. It’s this kind of statistic that has spurred all 50 states and the District of Columbia to pass laws making it illegal to drive with a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher.

Although you may not be a fatality if you drive while under the influence, don’t think that means you’re home free. If you’re ticketed for a DUI, you’ll face a financial toll that you probably never considered. The following list is an example of some of the expenses you can expect:

  • Bail – It can cost anywhere from $250 to $2500 for a first time DUI offender to be released from jail after an arrest depending on the jurisdiction.
  • Towing – When you’re arrested, your car is automatically towed. The cost starts at $100. In Chicago, for example, the typical charge is $1,200 for the first 24 hours and $50 for each additional day of storage. If you can’t afford to get your car after 30 days, the city auctions it. Other cities are beginning to follow Chicago’s lead.
  • Insurance premiums – If you are convicted, your insurance rates will increase substantially for the next three to five years. This could mean anywhere from two to four times more than you are currently paying. You could even face losing coverage all together. In that case, you would be forced to find a company specializing in higher risks that will insure you, or see whether your state has an assigned-risk pool for insurance. Either way, you’ll pay considerably more for coverage.
  • Legal fees – Expect anywhere from $2,500 to $25,000 depending on how much time an attorney has to invest in your case to defend you. In addition to what you pay your lawyer, you may also find yourself paying for an investigator to examine the arrest scene, and expert witnesses who can testify about the inaccuracy of field sobriety tests.
  • Fines – The fines and court fees for breaking the law vary from state to state, However, you can expect to pay anywhere from $300 to $1200.
  • Alcohol Evaluation – This is required of anyone sentenced by the court for drunk driving. The cost for these evaluations starts at about $100 depending on the jurisdiction.
  • Treatment/Education Program – A conviction means you will be required to undergo treatment or education in order to get your driver’s license re-issued. The extent of these programs differs greatly, and the costs can range from $300 to $2000. 

Playing with Fire: What Will the Tenant’s Liability Insurance Cover?

Insurance companies, agents and buyers tend to focus on the major coverages within the Commercial General Liability policy: Liability for injuries caused by a business’s premises, operations, products or finished projects, and liability for property damage. However, for businesses that do not own the buildings where they operate, there is an often-overlooked coverage that could be very important. The policy declarations refer to it as Damage To Premises Rented To You, although it has traditionally been known as Fire Damage Legal Liability Coverage. It provides limited coverage for tenants who cause fire damage to rented premises.

Fire Damage Legal Liability is a “give-back” coverage. Coverage A – Bodily Injury and Property Damage Liability contains 14 exclusions — clauses that describe types of losses to which the coverage does not apply. The final paragraph states that the last 12 exclusions do not apply to fire damage to premises while rented to or temporarily occupied by the insured with permission of the owner, so it gives the coverage back from the exclusions. This means that, if the insured is legally liable for fire damage to premises rented or temporarily occupied, the policy will provide coverage for fire damage to premises in the insured’s care, custody or control, and fire damage resulting from release of pollutants, among others.

This coverage has several limitations:

* It usually has a limit of only $50,000 or $100,000.

* It applies only to the premises, not to contents such as furniture or wall coverings.

* It covers fire damage only, not water damage or other types of losses.

* It provides coverage only if the insured is legally liable for the damage. It does not cover liability the insured assumed under a contract.

 

These limitations can leave a business at least partially unprotected in a variety of situations. Some examples:

* The business’s liability for damage to a rented space is $200,000.

* The business is an auto body shop. While a car is being spray painted, a spark ignites the fumes and causes an explosion.

* The business rents meeting space in a hotel. A projector overheats, starting a fire that damages tables, chairs, easels, and a cart holding refreshments.

* The business’s lease makes it responsible for damage to the premises, regardless of cause. A nearsighted driver crashes his car into the display window.

 

In all of these situations, the insured will either have no coverage or insufficient coverage.

If these limitations could cause a problem, the business may want to consider some options. It may want to look at buying a property Legal Liability Coverage Form. This policy covers the insured’s legal liability for damage to property described in the policy and in the insured’s care, custody or control. An advantage of this is that it provides coverage for a variety of perils, not just fire. However, it does not cover liability assumed under a contract, so it still would not cover damage caused by the nearsighted driver. A regular property insurance policy will provide broader coverage, but it probably duplicates the landlord’s coverage and is more expensive than other options. The tenant may want to ask the landlord to remove assumed liability from the lease.

To determine which coverage options are best for a particular situation, the business should work with an experienced insurance agent. The agent can explain alternatives, give an idea as to their costs, and provide information about various insurance companies’ claim handling practices. Get the facts early – the time to find out about your coverage is before a loss occurs.

Candle Fires Present a Burning Problem

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimates that in 2005, the most recent year for which statistics are available, candles caused 15,600 home fires, accounting for 4 percent of all reported home fires that year. These fires resulted in an estimated 150 deaths, 1,270 injuries and direct property losses totaling $539 million.

Most common causes of candle fires:

-50 percent were caused when combustible material was placed too close to a lit candle.

-18 percent were caused when a lit candle was left unattended.

-12 percent were caused when someone fell asleep while a candle was still burning.

NFPA data shows that 38 percent of all reported candle fires started in the bedroom. However, the living room, family room, and den were most often the scene of deaths caused by candle-related fires.

Why is the number of candle-related fires so high? It has grown in direct proportion to the increase in candle usage in this country. The National Candle Association (NCA) estimates U.S. retail sales of candles at approximately $2 billion annually, excluding sales of candle accessories.

To help keep consumers safe while enjoying their candles, the NCA offers the following tips:

  • Keep a burning candle within sight. Extinguish all candles when leaving a room or before going to sleep.
  • Move burning candles away from furniture, drapes, bedding, carpets, books, paper, flammable decorations, etc.
  • Do not place lighted candles where they can be knocked over by children, pets or anyone else.
  • Trim candlewicks to ¼ inch each time before burning.
  • Use a candleholder that is heat resistant, sturdy and large enough to contain any drips or melted wax.
  • Place the candleholder on a stable, heat-resistant surface.
  • Keep the wax pool free of wick trimmings, matches and debris at all times.
  • Don’t burn a candle longer than the manufacturer recommends.
  • Keep burning candles away from drafts, vents, ceiling fans and air currents to prevent rapid, uneven burning, and avoid flame flare-ups.
  • Burn candles in a well-ventilated room.
  • Stop burning a candle when 2 inches of wax remains or ½ inch if in a container.
  • Never touch a burning candle or move a votive or container candle when the wax is liquid.
  • Never use a knife or sharp object to remove wax drippings from a glass holder because it might scratch, weaken, or cause the glass to break upon subsequent use.
  • Use a candlesnuffer to extinguish a candle so hot wax doesn’t splatter.
  • Never extinguish candles with water because it may cause the hot wax to splatter.
  • Use flashlights and other battery-powered lights during a power failure.
  • Make sure a candle is completely extinguished and the wick ember is no longer glowing before leaving the room.
  • Extinguish a candle if it smokes, flickers repeatedly, or the flame becomes too high.
  • Never use a candle as a night-light.

When Your Employees Date, Make Sure You Don’t Get a Courtroom Date

In the modern workplace, men and women work together for eight or ten hours a day; sometimes even longer. When people spend that much time together, it’s not surprising that occasional romances will bloom. Many people have met their spouses at work. Unfortunately, workplace romances don’t always have happy endings. When a couple in an office breaks up, the atmosphere can become, at best, uncomfortable and, at worst, hostile. Productivity can suffer as the ex-partners feud with each other. More serious, in some cases the firm may have a significant financial exposure when love goes wrong.

Relationships between two people of equal position in the company may not be cause for concern, but romances involving supervisors and their subordinates can expose the company to legal liability. Workers outside the relationship may detect favoritism toward the subordinate when he or she receives pay raises, promotions, or other desired rewards. Conversely, if the couple breaks up, the subordinate may be sensitive to any actions that smack of retaliation. In the worst cases, the subordinate may decide he or she is a victim of sexual harassment and take legal action against the company. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received almost 14,000 complaints of sexual harassment in 2008. Almost 30 percent of these settled in the injured employee’s favor, costing the employers $47 million, not including damage awards won through litigation.

Employers who wish to avoid close relationships with government investigators may consider several options, including:

* Not having an office romance policy. Firms who choose this option may emphasize anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies instead.

* At the other extreme, some companies have outright bans on employee romances. While this may have some appeal, it can be difficult to implement because the forbidden behavior may be hard to define. Also, courts may not uphold such a ban.

* Some companies require employees who date each other to notify a company representative, such as the human resources manager, when the relationship begins and if it ends. This may protect the company from ensuing sexual harassment claims.

* Many companies have policies against spouses working for the same company or against employees supervising significant others, spouses, or other relatives. This can make it less likely that other employees will perceive favoritism, but the company must apply the policy equal to members of both sexes to avoid discrimination claims.

* Some companies actually require employees in a relationship to sign contracts. These agreements state that the employees have entered into a voluntary relationship, affirm that they understand the company harassment policy, describe how to report complaints, and describe acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.

 

In addition to adopting one of these options, employers can take some steps to reduce their chances of having to fend off sexual harassment claims. First, they should communicate to supervisors that relationships with subordinates should be avoided. They should create an environment where supervisors and other employees feel safe to report improper behavior. They should have policies against harassment and implement procedures for making complaints. They should take steps to end direct reporting relationships between romantic partners by transferring one of them, if possible.

Human nature being what it is, there will probably always be workplace romances. Thoughtful consideration and implementation of policy alternatives will help protect a company from potential resulting lawsuits. However, all the best precautions may still fail to prevent litigation, so all employers should carry employment practices liability insurance. An experienced insurance agent can provide advise on the available coverage options and companies. With preventive measures in place and risk financing in the form of a good insurance policy, employers can focus on their top priorities: Growing their businesses.

Don’t Be Left Hanging By an Uninsured or Underinsured Driver

Despite mandatory liability insurance laws in 47 out of 50 states, the Insurance Research Council estimates the uninsured motorist rate at about 14 percent nationally and possibly as high as 30 percent in some states. The Property/Casualty Insurers Association of America reports that uninsured motorists are involved in more than 20 percent of fatal crashes in the United States.

But, uninsured drivers aren’t the only problem. Many drivers who have insurance carry only the minimum limits, which may be insufficient to cover all damages in an accident for which they’re at fault.

So what happens if you find yourself involved in a car accident caused by one of these uninsured or underinsured motorists? It could be a financially devastating experience unless you have Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist (UM/UIM) coverage.

While UM/UIM coverage is not required in most states, you need this coverage because if you are involved in an accident caused by someone else, and they don’t have the insurance to cover the damage, you can file a claim with your insurer. This is an important safeguard because a motorist who is uninsured or underinsured probably doesn’t have the financial means to pay for any damages resulting from an accident.

Before you purchase Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist coverage, it is important to understand what is covered. Uninsured Motorist insurance (UM) pays for medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering that result from an accident caused by an uninsured driver. UM insurance also protects you and your passengers if a hit-and-run driver strikes you. In addition, policyholders are covered for medical expenses and lost wages if they are hit as a pedestrian, cyclist or commuter.

Underinsured Motorist insurance (UIM) pays for these same expenses that result from an accident caused by a driver who lacks sufficient insurance to cover all of the costs. In some states, Underinsured Motorist coverage is included in your Uninsured Motorist insurance.

Insurers operating in most states also offer Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist Property Damage insurance (UMPD). Whereas, UM/UIM coverage pays for bodily injuries, this coverage pays for damage an uninsured or underinsured driver causes to your vehicle. Covered property may also include personal property inside the vehicle, depending on the state.