Excellent recordkeeping and policy handbooks are the heart of any practice. Too often, thorny situations arise without proper documentation, but potential lawsuits can be avoided with the aforementioned elements in place — maybe it’s time to have a conversation with a human resource professional or labor employment attorney.
How important is it for practices to have exceptional recordkeeping in place? Adam Chotiner, an attorney with Florida-based Shapiro Blasi Wasserman Hermann, believes there’s nothing more important.
“Everything flows from one or both of these main principles, documentation and consistency,” Chotiner says.
And when he says “everything,” he means it. From employment applications to tax, immigration and I-9 forms, to the signing of agreements or restrictive covenants, to having accurate time and payroll records — there’s no room for assumptions or, as Chotiner puts it, “Winging it.”
According to Chotiner, time and payroll records may be the most significant elements where proper documentation is concerned because it’s the area where a practice is most likely to have legal problems if not handled correctly. That includes whether workers are correctly classified as exempt or non-exempt.
“One of the common myths I encounter is employers believing that if they pay someone a salary, they don’t have to pay them overtime,” Chotiner says. “That’s a false statement. It’s only part of the equation, and usually not the biggest part.”
Especially in small practices, he adds, where physicians will place all assistants and clerical staff on salary and figure that's good enough.
Where tracking is concerned, he offers some sound advice.
“The more direct involvement employees have in reporting and tracking their own time, the better,” Chotiner explains. “You don’t want a situation where some manager is just keeping tabs on when everyone comes and goes. That’s just way too easy to challenge.”
Case in point, Chotiner says that for years south Florida has seen “an absolute glut” of wage and hour cases across all industries. That can include situations where employers are paying a worker straight time for overtime, rather than time-and-a-half.
“In most cases, they didn’t even know they were doing the wrong thing,” he says. “But you can’t claim ignorance there.”
Hand in hand with documentation is consistency. For example, if your practice has an employee handbook that sets forth practice policies such as for workers to not show up late, or where disciplinary issues come into play, it’s important to treat each situation consistently.
To illustrate, Chotiner says that if a practice has a policy in place indicating that an absence of 3 times a month is grounds for termination, then that policy must be enforced consistently. You can’t fire 1 employee who may be African-American or a member of any minority or protected group for an infraction but not fire 3 other employees.
“That highlights the main component in my view of consistency,” Chotiner says. “You want to maintain consistency in all of your human relation aspects, not just timekeeping.”
That can be as simple as sending an email to yourself that an employee was late that day. You spoke with him or her and told them not to be late again, then add the email to the personnel file. It may not be a formal document, but it’s better than doing nothing.
“The key is to at least document the incident, and enforce policies in a consistent way,” Chotiner says. “And that goes back to the idea of a handbook, because it sets forth what the policies are.”
Even for something as rudimentary as vacation time. How much paid time off do employees receive? Explain to employees how they accrue vacation time, and when they are entitled to use it. Then, enforce that policy in a consistent manner.
“If you give people a reason to think they’re being treated differently, whether it’s true or not, they’re probably going to think it,” Chotiner says. “And that’s where you get into trouble.”
Chotiner says the best place to start down the road to proper and consistent documentation is by speaking with a human resource professional, and also a labor employment lawyer. Because “what you don’t know can hurt you.”
After all, many practices are not large enough to justify a full-time or even part-time human resource person. There may be a practice administrator or office manager who fills that role, but are they properly trained in human recourse issues?
And it can all start by preparing, or revising, or updating a handbook — putting policies in place, and making sure everyone understands how to consistently maintain records and enforce those policies.
“There are outsource HR companies and people you can bring in to help,” Chotiner says. “But as a labor employment lawyer, my advice is, have a conversation with someone who can start you down the right path.”