Are you doing enough to prevent breaches of protected health information?

HIPAA violations can have serious legal consequences.

Case in point: A federal grand jury has indicted a former employee at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for allegedly stealing patient data. The defendant disclosed to other people the names, birth dates and Social Security numbers of patients – information later used to file false tax returns. The law carries of maximum sentence of 80 years in prison, a fine of more than $4.7 million, or both.

In another case, a former researcher at the UCLA School of Medicine has been sentenced to four months in federal prison for HIPAA violations. Upon learning that he was being dismissed from his job, the UCLA employee accessed the medical records of his superior and coworkers, as well as more than 320 patient records (many of them celebrities) during the following four weeks. Charges were filed in 2009 and the defendant pleaded guilty in early 2010 to four misdemeanor counts of illegally reading private and confidential medical records.

Not only do these cases demonstrate the long reach of HIPAA enforcement, but also the importance of bumping up security and other safeguards to prevent these types of medical data breaches.

What is a breach?

A breach occurs when 1) there has been “unauthorized” access, use or disclosure of “unsecured” PHI that violates the HIPAA Privacy Rule, and 2) the disclosure “compromises the security or privacy” of the PHI, which means that it “poses a significant risk of financial, reputational or other harm to the individual.”

What is “unsecured” PHI?

The rules define “unsecured” PHI as any information that has not been rendered unusable, unreadable or indecipherable to unauthorized individuals through the application of a technology such as encryption and destruction.

Encryption - Proper encryption should use an algorithmic process to transform data into a form that is meaningless without a confidential process or key (which also must be protected).

Destruction - Hard copy PHI, such as paper or film, needs to be thoroughly shredded or destroyed so that it cannot be read or reconstructed.

How do I protect my business?

To steer clear of HIPAA violations and breaches, you should:

Establish breach notification procedures and update policies - Develop guidelines for determining when a breach has occurred, who will prepare individual notifications, and when a breach will trigger a requirement for notice to the media or immediate notice to HHS. Amend your HIPAA privacy and security policies, too, to cover the security breach notification rules.

Maintain a breach incident log - Set up a system to log security breaches affecting fewer than 500 individuals, which you must file with HHS within 60 days after the end of the year.

Revise business associate agreements - Discuss with your business associates (and put in writing) when they should notify you of a breach by their organization, what information should be reported, and which party will issue the required notifications.

Train employees on proper procedures - Employees should understand when they have encountered a breach and how to report it. A successful training program will provide formal instruction on HIPAA-related policies and procedures, as well as build awareness through workplace postings and other employee materials.

Employee safety during winter's "big chill"

When the winds are howling, the snow drifting and the temperatures plummeting, your employees have more to worry about than “Jack Frost nipping at their nose.”

If forecasts hold true, this could continue to be an especially rough winter season for much of the country. Now is the time to step up your cold-weather safety training to ensure your employees work safely outdoors and are prepared for any winter-related emergencies.

For your employees at the greatest risk …

If your business involves construction, commercial fishing, maritime or agriculture, much of your workforce is directly exposed to the dangers of extreme cold. Meet your obligation under OSHA to provide a safe working environment by educating outdoor employees on cold-weather risks and guiding them on proper winter wear.

The two biggest health threats for your outdoor employees are frostbite and hypothermia. Alert them to the early signs of cold stress, and what they should do if they (or a coworker) show symptoms of either condition.

Frostbite occurs when body tissues freeze, most often affecting the fingers, toes, nose, cheeks and ears. It can permanently damage tissue and cause loss of movement in the areas affected. Early symptoms include numbness, tingling or stinging, aching, and bluish or pale skin.

Recommended first aid: Move the victim to a warm room or shelter; discourage the victim from walking on frostbitten feet or rubbing the frostbitten area, which can cause damage; and immerse the affected area in warm water.

Hypothermia occurs when body temperatures drop to dangerously low levels due to exposure to cold (as well as other factors, such as high winds, exhaustion and wet clothes.) Early symptoms include shivering, fatigue, loss of coordination and disorientation. In later stages, hypothermia can lead to bluish skin, dilated pupils, slowed pulse and even unconsciousness and death, if left untreated.

Recommended first aid: Move the victim to a warm room or shelter; remove wet clothing; warm the chest, neck, head and groin with an electric blanket, if possible; provide warm beverages; and keep the victim dry and wrapped in a warm blanket.

Keep in mind that these risks increase significantly in relation to the windchill factor. On blustery, cold days, the wind eliminates the thin layer of air that acts as an insulator between the skin and the outside air, which can cause a loss of as much as 80 percent of a person’s total body heat.

Even when conditions aren’t severe enough to cause frostbite or hypothermia, they may lead to other safety hazards for your employees. For example, a worker that loses feeling and dexterity in his hands may have difficulty handling tools, equipment and other materials, increasing the chance of an accident.

What they wear matters

The right clothing is a vital defense against the cold weather. While OSHA does not require you, in most cases, to provide cold-weather personal protective equipment (PPE) to employees at no cost to them, it’s certainly a good idea to inform them on what type of gear will safeguard them from the elements.

To prevent heat loss, employees should wear several layers of loose clothing and a durable winter coat that provides adequate insulation, sheds snow and wetness, and allows the escape of moisture from within. Thermal underwear is also recommended, along with wool socks, quilted or lined pants, waterproof, insulated footwear, wool knit caps or hat liners, and gloves or mittens.

Office feeling a little ho-hum? Wrap up the gift of employee morale

Between planning a cross-country vacation to visit Aunt Judy or navigating the nearest mega-mall for last-minute gifts, many employees find their focus dropping faster than the needles on a Fraser fir during the holiday season.

The floundering economy has many a staff crying, “Bah! Humbug!”, as well. Whether it’s due to weak, year-end sales or the company being forced to cancel the annual holiday extravaganza, employee morale may be in a slump. From G.Neil’s HR Library of interesting, insightful HR articles, I bring you some tips to boost employee morale during the holidays and keep energy levels high well into the new year:

Food. Food has a magical way of bringing employees together and putting everyone in a good mood. Throughout the year and especially during the holiday season, get employees together by holding bake sales for charity, organizing potluck luncheons or simply bringing in a bag of bagels.

Holiday cards. Business holiday cards are a simple and easy way for companies to show their appreciation for the hard work employees have put in all year long. Remember to go one step further and write a personal, hand-written message on the inside of the card for a special touch.

Compliments. Like a sweet treat, compliments have a way of immediately lifting our spirits and bringing a smile to our face. Encourage supervisors to compliment their employees regularly. It’s a free and easy way to improve employee morale not only during the holidays, but year-round.

Fun. Look for simple ways to lighten the mood at work. Hold whimsical contests, bring in pizza for lunch or make up playful celebrations, like “Favorite Team Jersey Day.” If the weather permits, buy some frisbees or footballs and take the action outside of the office. Keep your ideas simple, get everyone involved and have a good time.

Humor. Bring some laughter back into the office with a fun activity. For example, organize an office-wide event where employees hand out funny awards to coworkers and supervisors. Keep costs low by using common office supplies to create the awards. See how creative employees can get by using what they find in the supply cabinet.

The holidays offer a great opportunity to improve employee morale around the office. All it takes is a little ingenuity and some simple ideas. Don’t wait until January 2nd to get started - get going today!

DOL and ABA partner to help resolve wage-related complaints

In the first-ever collaboration between a federal agency and the private bar, the Department of Labor (DOL) and American Bar Association (ABA) will join forces to resolve employee complaints received by the Wage and Hour Division (a department that handles more than 35,000 employment-related legal complaints in a typical year).

Through an attorney-referral system, the new program will ensure more workers obtain legal assistance for complaints such as not getting paid the minimum wage, not being paid overtime, or being denied family medical leave.

As of December 13, complainants whose cases cannot be resolved by the DOL due to limited capacity will get a toll-free number connecting them to a network of state and local ABA-approved attorneys. If the DOL has already conducted an investigation, the complainant will receive the findings to share with the attorney who takes the case. The DOL also has established a special process to help complainants and representing attorneys obtain additional case details and documents.

According to DOL Secretary Hilda Solis, this collaboration “streamlines worker access to additional legal resources and builds on the Department of Labor’s continued efforts to ensure that employers comply with America’s labor laws.”

To learn more, check out the We Can Help area of the DOL’s website.

Be more safety savvy by educating employees on the latest CPR guidelines

As you know, the American Heart Association (AHA) recently released new CPR guidelines (see previous blog post) specifying that chest compressions come first, followed by clearing the airway and mouth-to-mouth breathing. The new guidelines also indicate how fast and how hard rescuers should push on the breastbone during compressions.

What are you doing to share this new CPR procedure with your employees? You play a key role in empowering your workforce with the latest safety guidelines. Satisfy OSHA’s requirement for posting essential safety information by hanging a current CPR poster in your workplace.

We’ve refreshed our Lifesaving CPR and Choking Posters to make it easy to keep your company up to date on the latest CPR technique. When prominently displayed, the boldly illustrated, laminated posters provide immediate access to the new CPR steps, possibly shaving seconds off a life-sustaining emergency procedure. Order now and save 10% off the regular price.

'Tis the season for sexual harassment training

In just a few festive hours, an employee can do or say something at the annual holiday party (see previous post) that could lead to a sexual harassment claim – and a legal mess that lasts long after the tinsel comes down.

To keep the good cheer in check and protect your company from a harassment claim:

Remind employees of your no-harassment policy. Redistribute the policy before the holiday party, and emphasize that all guidelines will be in full force, even if the party occurs off-site or after work hours. Be certain your employees understand that harassment can be verbal, physical or visual. The areas that could get someone in trouble at a holiday event are most likely verbal and physical harassment, including inappropriate comments, jokes, unwelcome physical contact, invading one’s physical space and offensive gestures.

Make sure all employees and supervisors have received sexual harassment training. If you haven’t conducted sexual harassment training in the past year, consider organizing a one- to two-hour session that covers definitions and examples of harassment, an overview of employee rights, and clear communication that the company will not tolerate harassment of any kind.

A few last tips …

Since you could be found liable for injuries caused by a drunken employee, consider not serving alcohol at all – or taking steps to limit consumption, such as providing a limited number of drink tickets for each employee, closing the bar well before the party ends or offering perks to employees who volunteer to be designated drivers.

Also, stress to supervisors the importance of setting a professional example, and that you’re counting on them to keep an eye on any employee antics that could get out of hand.

It's (work) party time! How to ring in the holidays without regrets

Whether a corporate-sponsored, semi-formal event or a group outing at a local watering hole, holiday gatherings are festive events, which can lead to careless carousing (especially when the eggnog is spiked).

That doesn’t mean employees can’t and shouldn’t have fun. They simply need to party smart. There is no other event on the corporate calendar that offers greater opportunity to be noticed - whether it’s as employee of the year or the guy who slow-danced with the table centerpiece.

Help your employees have a joyous and memorable-for-all-the-right-reasons corporate holiday season by encouraging them to follow these party pearls of wisdom:

1. Join the festivities. First and foremost, encourage employees to attend the event. Yes, it’s the holidays and everyone is busy but “no-shows” are noticed. At the very least, attending demonstrates that you’re a team member and not an outsider.

2. Dress appropriately. This is no time to be a jester in a court of kings. Don’t show up looking like you’re cleaning out the garage … or test the boundaries of good taste with clothes too tight, too short or too low. Do your best to blend and remember that how you dress matters.

3. Restrict the refreshments. Too many trips to the spiked punch bowl or open bar can lead to inappropriate words and actions. Limit yourself to one or two drinks, so you can leave the party with your wits - and reputation - intact.

4. Toe the line. Although employees are not officially on the clock, their conduct during on-site or off-site events should be the same: businesslike. Many a career has taken a turn for the worse due to loose lips, lapses in sound judgment and other embarrassing shenanigans. Keep it clean and keep it professional.

5. Expand your social circle. While it’s easier to hang out with your “regular” group of coworkers, a holiday gathering is a great environment for getting to know employees you don’t regularly interact with. On the flip side, don’t attach yourself to just one person and monopolize the conversation. Move around and mingle.

6. Limit “shop talk”. While you’re mingling with others, try to keep the business talk to a minimum. Instead, take advantage of the opportunity to get to know your coworkers on a more personal level. Be positive and stick with safe topics like travel, family, local sports and movies.

7. Be appreciative. Before leaving the party, make an effort to thank a senior executive. Not only is it proper etiquette, but it also gives you a chance to make a positive (perhaps even first) impression. Your politeness will be remembered.

Check out Friday’s blog post for some final tips from the HR front for keeping your holiday event happy and harassment-free.

Long-awaited GINA regulations clarify how to prevent genetic information discrimination

On November 9, 2010, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published the final regulations implementing the employment provisions of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA). Title II of GINA is designed to prohibit employment discrimination based on genetic information, specifically restricting employers with 15 or more employees from obtaining and sharing genetic information.

According to the website: “The law forbids discrimination on the basis of genetic information when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoffs, training, fringe benefits, or any other term or condition of employment.”

Specifically, genetic information is defined as:

• Information about an individual’s genetic tests and the genetic tests of family members (including tests that identify a predisposition to a disease, such as breast cancer or Huntington’s Disease)
• Family medical history (often used to determine someone’s risk of getting a particular disease or disorder)
• Requests for and receipt of genetic services by an individual or family members
• Genetic information about an individual or family member’s fetus, or of an embryo legally held by an individual or family member through assisted reproductive technology

In addition to clarifying GINA’s prohibition against requesting, requiring or purchasing genetic information (including guidelines for legal Internet searches), the final regulations include a “safe harbor” provision protecting employers from liability when they use specific language warning individuals not to provide genetic information when submitting health-related information.

To ensure compliance, you should display the “EEO is the Law” posting that the EEOC revised in late 2009. With Poster Guard® Compliance Protection, you can be confident you’re communicating the latest mandatory GINA information via the Federal Easy-Post™ labor law poster. You should also update your employee handbook to include “genetic information” as one of the protected, anti-discrimination categories.

To Iraq and back - The legal rights of returning soldiers

As the U.S. wraps up combat operations in Iraq, the remaining 50,000 U.S. troops will be heading home and returning to work. Now is the time to brush up on your awareness of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA) and your legal responsibility to soldiers returning from military leave.

USERRA, which applies to both active duty and reserve members of the military, is the primary federal law governing the employment and reemployment rights of service members. USERRA requires you to reinstate employees upon completion of service; to grant the same seniority, status, pay and applicable benefits an employee would have earned if not called to duty; and to train or otherwise qualify returning employees for reemployment. Keep in mind, too, that when state and federal laws regarding military leave conflict, you must follow USERRA and provide the maximum advantages available.

USERRA requirements are tricky for many employers. In fact, a 2010 poll conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) revealed that only 9 percent of respondents were “extremely familiar” with USERRA, while 52 percent claimed to be “somewhat familiar” and an alarming 39 percent of respondents claimed to be unfamiliar with the law.

We can help. With our automatic poster replacement service, you can be certain you’re displaying the latest, mandatory USERRA information via the Federal Easy-Post™ labor law poster. G.Neil also offers an easy-to-read, downloadable E-Guide that clearly explains the USERRA regulations and your legal obligations.

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Veterans’ Benefits Act of 2010 makes some changes to USERRA

Why it's just as important to dole out the praise as it is the pay

We’re all too familiar with the saying “Money can’t buy happiness.” Well, it seems this sentiment is as true in the workplace as it is in our personal lives. Just as a bigger house, car or flat-screen TV can’t define our happiness at home, neither can a bigger paycheck, bonus or raise at the office.

What does bring more satisfaction, according to a recent McKinsey Quarterly global survey, is praise from our superiors. Recognition and support go a long way toward boosting an employee’s self esteem, building confidence and enhancing performance. Those are huge positives that, thankfully, don’t cost your recession-challenged business a lot of money!

Salary isn't everything

Conducted in June 2009, the McKinsey survey garnered responses from more than 1,000 executives, managers and employees from around the world (and representing a range of industries).

The survey posed the question, “Which incentives do you find boost employee morale and productivity most?” The answers were:

• Praise and commendation from immediate managers – 67%
• Attention from leaders – 63%
• Opportunities to lead projects or task forces – 62%
• Performance-based cash bonuses – 60%
• Increased base pay – 52%
• Stock or stock options – 35%

As the report outlining the survey results explains: “The respondents view three noncash motivators … as no less or even more effective motivators than the three highest-rated financial incentives. The survey’s top three nonfinancial motivators play critical roles in making employees feel that their companies value them, take their well-being seriously, and strive to create opportunities for career growth.”

How to keep employees engaged

The results of this survey are good news for cash-strapped employers still crawling out from under the recent economic downturn. “There couldn’t be a better time to reinforce more cost-effective approaches,” explains the report. Money’s traditional role as the dominant motivator in the workplace is taking a back seat to more intrinsic benefits.

So how do you act on this important message and motivate employees to give their best? Here are some simple, low-cost employee recognition ideas to enhance job satisfaction and performance:

Make a note of it
A hand-written thank you note shows you valued a person’s work enough to take time out of your day to acknowledge it. It’s a simple gesture with great impact. For even more impact, mail a card or letter home so the employee can share the praise with family members.

Point out employees publicly
Use a public forum, such as a staff meeting, to recognize excellent performance, so an employee’s moment in the spotlight is shared with others. Look for other creative ideas for employee recognition, such as company newsletters, intranets or even articles in local newspapers.

Little things mean a lot
It’s great to recognize the "big wins," but it’s also important to call attention to the everyday achievements. Reward employees for their “quieter” contributions with a thank you note and if the budget will allow, something extra like a store gift card, desktop award or free lunch.

Encourage peer recognition
Implement a program in which employees recognize one another. One version of this could be a "Pay It Forward" type of award in which the first employee who receives the award identifies the next employee who deserves the award.

Create a work environment that supports achievement
Display inspirational and motivational posters on the wall, introduce team-building or motivational games as a part of staff meetings, and provide occasional social events on company time to strengthen camaraderie among employees and management.

Keep in mind, too, that most employees enjoy new, challenging opportunities. Avoid micromanaging employees so they’ll gain a sense of control and mastery with their work, and involve them in (or have them lead) fresh projects that will expand their skills and stretch them creatively.

In a weak economy, FMLA claims strengthen

Claims related to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) jumped more than 10% this year, according to a report by FMLASource, an affiliate of ComPsych Corporation. The key reasons for FMLA absences are 1) personal illness/injury, 2) caring for a child, and 3) caring for an elderly relative.

Experts blame the struggling economy for the bump. “As companies continue to operate with leaner staffs in a slowly recovering economy, many workers are seeking FMLA job protection in order to take time off to care for themselves as well as family members,” says Jim Brown, vice president of FMLASource.

To counteract this trend, Brown recommends that employers beef up their support services, including Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and work-life initiatives, to address employee issues and reduce the length of FMLA absences.

A thorough monitoring and documentation process of claims is essential, too. To ensure tighter administrative control and to curb costs in a tough economy, rely on the ComplyRight™ FMLA Administration System. It includes all the forms and information you need to effectively manage FMLA requests according to the latest regulations.

Veterans' Benefits Act of 2010 makes some changes to USERRA

On October 13, President Obama signed into law the Veterans’ Benefits Act (VBA) of 2010. Through amendments to the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), the VBA further protects service members from employment discrimination (including wages and benefits) and retaliation due to service.

Whereas USERRA excluded “wages or salary for work performed” in its definition of “benefit of employment,” the VBA references a 2002 court case to clarify that wages or salary are included in the definition.

The VBA will also utilize a multi-factor test to determine if a new, “successor-in-interest” company can be held liable for the USERRA violations of a previous company. (A modification to help prevent employers from dodging responsibility for their actions). The factors to be considered include:

• Use of the same or similar facilities
• Continuity of workforce
• Similarity of jobs and working conditions
• Similarity of supervisory personnel
• Similarity of machinery, equipment and production methods
• Similarity of products or services

The amendments are retroactive and apply to any USERRA violations that occur before, on or after the VBA’s enactment date.

Check back here to learn of potential updates to the federally required USERRA posting.

OSHA to set its "sights" on high-risk, non-construction worksites

OSHA recently narrowed down the high-hazard manufacturing, non-manufacturing and nursing home sites it plans to inspect under its 2010 Site-Specific Targeting (SST) program. Designed to direct the agency’s enforcement efforts to riskier workplaces, the SST program is OSHA’s primary inspection plan for non-construction sites with 40 or more workers.

The plan relies on OSHA’s 2009 Data Initiative survey, which collects injury and illness data from 80,000 private sector establishments in high-hazard industries in the previous year. The 4,100 workplaces selected for inspection were among 15,000 employers who received warning letters from OSHA in March, informing them they had twice the number of injuries and illnesses resulting in days away from work, restricted work activities or job transfers.

“Our goal is to prevent worker injuries and illnesses and save lives,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA David Michaels. “The Site-Specific Targeting program helps OSHA focus its enforcement resources to high-risk employers who are endangering their workers' health and safety.”

Even if your business wasn’t targeted for inspection, you should strive to meet all OSHA safety standards, prevent accidents, and properly document injuries and illnesses. The right OSHA recordkeeping forms and tools can help you maintain a safe, OSHA-compliant workplace.

The show must go on: Judge 'em for their talents, not their financial trip-ups

Sure, there was a time when she thought she could be a rock star. But the only thing that rose to the heights of her imagination was her credit card debt. Hey guitars and amps are expensive … and she really thought that next gig would be her ticket to stardom.

Her life looks a lot different now. All those unpaid bills – and her rock-star dreams – are both things of the past. Yet her previous credit history haunts her like that horrible performance in Poughkeepsie. Should her previous financial flops keep her from getting a job now?

Some employers say yes. And some legislators are out to change that.

Approximately 13 percent of employers surveyed by the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) said they run credit checks on all job applicants - with another 47 percent considering credit history.

Employers say they run checks to learn more about an applicant’s honesty and sense of responsibility. Lawmakers say the practice is unnecessary and keeps people in debt because their past financial problems prevent them from obtaining work.

Currently, lawmakers in at least 16 states have proposed outlawing credit checks. And late last month, the EEOC held a public meeting to address the use of credit history as a screening tool. With unemployment reaching such high levels throughout the country, there's growing concern that credit checks are unfairly excluding certain applicants from legitimate job opportunities. (Keeping our aspiring performer from earlier singing the blues when she should be pulling in a steady paycheck.)

Representatives from a variety of stakeholder groups shared their views at the public meeting. Chi Chi Wu of the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC), for instance, explained that credit histories create a “fundamental Catch-22” for job applicants during this time of high unemployment and high foreclosures. She adds: “You can’t re-establish your credit if you can’t get a job, and you can’t get a job if you’ve got bad credit.”

Other concerns expressed in the meeting are that credit checks:

• can negatively impact certain protected groups, including women and people with disabilities;
• are a poor, or unreliable, predictor of job performance; and
• are often inaccurate or riddled with errors.

It will be interesting to see how this issue plays out in the coming months. Personally, I feel that there a lot more reliable indicators of an applicant’s skills and trustworthiness than their credit history. I also know too many solid, hard-working professionals who fell victim to the real estate bust and economic downturn … and whose financial challenges play no part in their “hireability.” These people are not washed-up rock stars who need to turn in their mics and guitars.

In the meantime, remember that the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires employers to obtain an applicant’s written consent before requesting a credit report. And if you decide not to hire or promote someone based on details in the report, you must provide a copy of the report and let the applicant know of his or her right to challenge the report.

How to recover faster from a disaster

Halloween is upon us, which means we're surrounded by all sorts of horrors: ghosts, goblins, bad Lady Gaga costumes and bottomless bowls of diet-wrecking candy.

But if the latest news stories are any indication, wicked weather is one of our bigger threats these days. We turn on the national news and witness vivid coverage of tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, severe storms, fires and other disasters wreaking havoc on homes, businesses and communities. And as we watch the destruction, we think, “Thank goodness it’s not me, my family or my workplace.”

As a responsible employer, however, you need to realize this simple truth: Disaster can strike any time. And the difference between lengthy down time and a quick recovery lies with proper emergency planning.

To ensure you’re never caught off guard in a crisis and can respond promptly, a basic plan should include:

• Emergency contact numbers. Keep a current database of employee and emergency service phone numbers in a safe place with easy access. Cell phones, with their separate networks, are good communication devices in emergencies.

• Detailed employee communication plans. How will top management deliver information to employees after a catastrophic event? It’s a smart idea to prerecord information on toll-free hotlines. And don’t forget the Internet as a way to connect with employees after a disaster.

• A list of critical tasks. Identify and distribute critical business operations (what keeps your company producing, selling, taking orders or providing services) to supervisors and employees. Also, think about limited or restricted work schedules, telecommuting arrangements and company transportation services for employees.

• An off-site meeting place. Designate an off-site location for top management and “essential” staff to meet in case your building is inaccessible.

• Customer communication plans. How will you communicate with customers on the status of their orders and deliver information to business clients?

• Data recovery plans. Natural and man-made disasters can easily wipe out hard drives and destroy databases. Keep critical back-up data at an outside location and have a plan on how to retrieve that information if disaster strikes.

• Employee health and safety. Health and safety become top priorities if you decide to keep your business open during and/or after a disaster. Refine your emergency response procedures and stock up on the appropriate first aid supplies.

Put your plan to the test ...

Once your disaster plan is in place, practice it and then practice it again. Train employees and supervisors on emergency procedures and what to do if they have limited or no access to the building.

Test your plan with emergency dry-runs and document the results. Look for ways to improve and update your plan wherever necessary. Schedule semi-annual meetings of emergency response teams to keep everyone in the loop and up to date.

The amount of lost time and productivity after a major disaster will ultimately come down to your preparations and training. With effective communication and employee cooperation, your business can keep recovery time to a minimum and your business standing after a crisis.

Are you steering clear of OSHA's top 10 safety violations?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently shared the 10 most frequent workplace safety violations for 2010 in a presentation to the National Safety Council.

Here are the 10 safety issues that made the list:

1. Scaffolding
2. Fall Protection
3. Hazard Communication
4. Respiratory Protection
5. Ladders
6. Control of Hazardous Energy – Lockout/Tagout
7. Electrical-Wiring Methods
8. Powered Industrial Trucks
9. Electrical – General
10. Machine Guarding

How safe and sound is your workplace? More important, what are you doing to build awareness and train your employees on proper safety procedures? With the right training resources, you can help prevent these top 10 safety offenses and avoid costly OSHA penalties.

American Heart Association switches CPR steps under new guidelines

In the past, the steps to administering CPR were 1) clear the victim’s airway, 2) deliver rescue breaths, and 3) start chest compressions. That has changed, however, under the American Heart Association’s new CPR guidelines. Now, chest compressions come first, followed by clearing the airway and giving mouth-to-mouth breathing.

The previous guidelines – last updated in 2005 – delayed getting oxygen-rich blood circulating throughout the body, which is essential in the critical first seconds of cardiac arrest.

“Every second without blood flow is associated with cells dying, so the faster you can start CPR, the faster you get blood flowing and the better you stave off the damage from cardiac arrest,” said Dr. Dana P. Edelson, director of clinical research for the University of Chicago’s Emergency Resuscitation Center and a co-author of the guidelines.

Among other changes to the guidelines, the AHA recommends that rescuers administer at least 100 chest compressions per minute, and push the breastbone down at least 2 inches with each compression - both of which can lead to better outcomes. And for people who may be uncomfortable giving mouth-to-mouth breathing, the new guidelines encourage non-medical professionals to use hands-only CPR.

Educate your employees about the AHA’s new CPR guidelines with our fully updated Lifesaving CPR Poster and Lifesaving Choking Poster.

Employers can expect a spike in OSHA penalties under new policy

As part of a longer-term enforcement plan, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is moving forward with a new, stricter administrative penalty policy that became effective October 1, 2010. Many experts felt that OSHA’s penalties, which have been around since the early 1970s, were too low to act as a deterrent. A handful of penalty adjustments will have a much wider, harder-hitting effect on employers.

Under the new policy, the time period for reviewing an employer’s past history of OSHA violations – to determine a “repeat” violation and any penalty increases or reductions – will expand from three to five years. An employer who has been cited by OSHA for a high-gravity, serious, willful, repeat or failure-to-abate violation within the last five years will receive a 10% penalty increase, up to the statutory maximum. (At the same time, any employer who has been inspected in the last five years and has none of these violations will receive a 10% penalty reduction.)

Among the other adjustments with the new policy:

• High-gravity, serious violations under OSHA’s Severe Violators Enforcement Program (SVEP) don’t have to be grouped but, rather, can be cited as separate violations with their own penalties

• OSHA officers can consider the gravity of serious violations (the severity and probability of an injury/illness resulting from a hazard) to issue penalties ranging from $3,000 to $7,000

• Employers with 251 or more employees will not receive any penalty reduction for employer size

• Good-faith procedures will continue, where employers can earn a reduction if they have a solid safety and health program in place, and are clear of any high-gravity, serious, willful, repeat or failure-to-abate violations

• Also retained is the 15% “quick fix” reduction for employers who immediately address any hazards identified in an inspection

• The minimum proposed penalty for a serious violation will increase to $500, and the minimum penalty for a posting violation will increase to $250 (if OSHA previously provided the company a poster)

In light of OSHA’s new penalty policy, you should carefully audit your safety and health program, remove all workplace hazards, enhance your safety practices, and properly document accidents and injuries. Check out our OSHA recordkeeping forms and tools for clear direction and easier compliance.

Statistics underscore administration's tough stance on immigration enforcement

According to a recent announcement by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Obama administration has achieved record-breaking immigration enforcement statistics in the past 20 months. Of particular note is the unprecedented number of convicted criminal aliens being identified and removed from the country.

Since January 2009, ICE audited more than 3,200 employers suspected of hiring illegal employees, debarred 225 companies and individuals, and imposed approximately $50 million in financial sanctions. In fiscal year 2010, ICE removed more than 392,000 illegal aliens (of which more than 195,000 were convicted criminals) … a 70% increase from the previous administration.

“This administration has focused on enforcing our immigration laws in a smart, effective manner that prioritizes public safety and national security and holds employers accountable who knowingly and repeatedly break the law,” said DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano.

We've said it before, and we'll say it again: Protect your business from damaging fines and even criminal arrests with a properly completed Form I-9 for every new employee.

Previous posts:

The "ICEy" grip of immigration enforcement felt by 500+ businesses

10 tips for surviving an I-9 audit

That knock on your office door may be Homeland Security

7 ways to rev up employee reviews

When it comes to managing employee performance, many companies miss the mark. And here’s why: Performance management means more than conducting reviews with employees once or twice a year.

If you only provide feedback at review time – sitting across a desk and going point by point through a rigid appraisal form – you’re overlooking many valuable opportunities to mentor, support and guide your employees.

For more relevant, results-driven performance management, you should:

1) Provide regular and immediate feedback year-round. To help employees learn from their mistakes and overcome their challenges, you need to share feedback that’s specific and timely. If you’re plugged into what your employees are doing day to day, and have worked to maintain an “open door” policy with them, confronting them with constructive criticism will be easier.

2) Set the right foundation at the beginning of the year. Create some structure around your expectations for the position and what a positive, productive year should look like. With the employee’s input, take the time to determine a handful of objective, measurable goals. Strive for goals that are challenging, but at the same time attainable.

3) Keep track of daily performance. A performance log lets you jot down notes about an employee’s good or bad behavior, as you observe it or hear about it. This information can be a handy reference for weekly or monthly discussions and certainly, a much more reliable resource at review time than your memory!

=> => OK, you’re keeping the lines of communication open with your employees and providing thoughtful feedback on a regular basis. But like most companies, you also need to complete a written appraisal and conduct a formal, one-on-one review. Here’s how to make the most of it:

4) Be prepared. This should be obvious, but make sure you’ve thought through what you’re going to say, and how you’re going to say it, before sitting down with the employee. Whether you use a standard performance appraisal form or some other written format for rating key performance factors, you still need to talk through the contents and fill in additional details.

5) Lead with the positive. Performance reviews can be as anxiety-inducing for the employee as they are for the manager or supervisor. Reinforce the employee’s strengths (with specific examples, of course) at the beginning of the review to set a positive tone and help put the employee at ease.

6) Make it a two-way conversation. An effective performance review is not a one-sided monologue by a manager. Rather, it should be an open exchange that allows employees to voice their concerns and offer new ideas. Creating this dynamic will help employees feel you value their opinions, which goes a long way toward increasing employee engagement and morale.

7) Focus on what matters to the employee. Job satisfaction plays a huge role in an employee’s attitude and performance. Just as no two employees are exactly alike, there’s no such thing as a “one size fits all” approach to reviews. An effective review should explore the issues that matter most to the employee, whether that means accepting new challenges, working on teams, taking on more responsibility or receiving additional training. If you know what makes an employee “tick”, you can tie more of those motivators into his or her goals and objectives.

More Americans using illicit drugs - How to keep your workplace clean

Based on a survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the overall rate of illicit drug use in the United States rose from 8% in 2008 to 8.7% in 2009 (among Americans aged 12 and older). The higher numbers are believed to be the result of greater marijuana use.

The annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) shows that other forms of substance abuse are on the rise, too:

Nonmedical use of prescription drugs - 2.8% in 2009 (from 2.5% in 2008)
Number of past-month ecstasy users – 760,000 in 2009 (from 555,000 in 2008)
Number of methamphetamine users - 502,000 in 2009 (from 314,000 in 2008)

Drug-Free Work Week is October 18-24, the perfect time to build awareness and take specific steps that will positively impact your company’s safety and productivity. Here are some ways you can make the most of it:

• Implement a drug-free workplace program – Make this the week you launch a program, if you don’t already have one. Employee handbook software can help you develop a solid, legally approved drug-free policy. You’ll also want to let applicants know your workplace is drug-free by applying drug-free applicant stickers to your job applications.

• Promote your drug-free workplace program - Once you have a program, you’ve got to get the word out and get employees involved. Hand out substance abuse fact sheets to remind employees about the effects substance abuse can have on the workplace.

• Train supervisors on their role in the workplace - Ensure supervisors understand your policies for handling substance abuse with a supervisor-specific handbook that outlines what they can and cannot do if they suspect abuse among their employees.

• Remind employees about the availability of employee-assistance services - These free, confidential services can help employees get the help they need to overcome substance abuse problems.

• Offer health screenings - Let employees know about the resources available to them to evaluate whether they have a substance abuse problem. Also, consider giving employees disposable alcohol detectors during holiday breaks when alcohol consumption is more likely, and encourage them to test alcohol levels before driving.

• Review your health insurance policy - Employees are more likely to seek help if your policy includes coverage for substance abuse treatment. Consider the cost benefit of adding such coverage over the cost of an accident and lost productivity.

• Create a drug-free workplace display - Dedicate an area of your workplace, such as a breakroom bulletin board, for raising awareness of your drug-free workplace policy with substance abuse posters.

• Feature Drug-Free Work Week in the employee newsletter or intranet - This feature can contain helpful information about the impact of drugs on the workplace, sources of help, and things workers can do if they think a colleague may have a substance abuse problem.

• Distribute a payroll message listing helplines or a reminder about Drug-Free Work Week for employees – Let employees know about Drug-Free Work Week with a notice that includes a list of resources available to them.

• Hold a social event celebrating safety and health - Put together a pizza lunch or other worktime activity to help blow off some steam … and reinforce the message that drugs and alcohol aren’t necessary to relax.

• Allow employees time to volunteer in community drug-prevention efforts - Organize a team of volunteers to help support local drug-prevention programs, or grant time off for employees who are involved in other drug-awareness and prevention efforts.

Changing a job's "essential functions" - ADA loophole or sinkhole?

Ask Woodman’s Food Markets this question and you’ll probably get a resounding “sinkhole.” The Janesville, Wisconsin-based grocery store chain is being sued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for firing a disabled employee who was restricted from lifting more than 10 pounds.

The snag is this: Kimberly McMillan-Goodwin successfully performed the job for years with the lifting restriction. But when she returned from an absence due to injuries in a car accident, she was placed on a one-year leave and then terminated. The company’s explanation? It changed the position, making McMillan-Goodwin no longer able to perform her job with the long-standing restriction. Plus, the company claimed it had no other positions to offer her.

While we don’t know the outcome of the lawsuit yet, the case deserves our attention because it pertains to whether an employer can change the essential functions of a job under the ADA and in turn, fire a disabled individual who was previously qualified. There is a fear that for particularly crafty employers, this could serve as a legal loophole, allowing them to sidestep the accommodation duty under the ADAAA’s expanded definition of “disabled.” Simply change the job description to shut out disabled candidates or existing employees who no longer meet the job’s requirements.

The EEOC’s position in the”changed jobs” case is more clear-cut. “It is unfortunate that some managers still act as if it’s acceptable to deny jobs to people who are ready and able to work, simply because of a disability – especially when the people they put on the street have a history of
long, loyal successful performance,” says John Hendrickson, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Chicago District. “It really runs against most people’s sense of fundamental fairness and, beyond that, it violates federal law.” (

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. In its support for disabled employees, the DOL’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) is promoting the message:

“Talent has no boundaries – Workplace diversity includes people with disabilities.”

Are you doing your part to open doors when hiring and promoting workers with disabilities? Just as important, are your workplace policies in sync with last year’s amendments to the ADA, including making reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals?

Caution! Pulling back the social media curtain could lead to hiring discrimination

The social networking explosion has created an “Age of Transparency” for individuals who share their lives – the good, the bad and the ugly – for the entire world to see. As of January 2010, there were more than 500 million global subscribers to Facebook, with 103 million residing in the U.S. – a leap from 43 million a year earlier or an annual increase of 145 percent! Even more astonishing: The growth rate within the 35-54 age bracket is up 328 percent in the U.S. over the same period. It’s safe to say nearly everyone is doing it.

The ubiquitous use of Facebook and other social networking websites creates opportunities for hiring managers and HR professionals to “peek behind the curtain” with potential hires. While a helpful resource, social networking sites may also pose an HR risk if discrimination comes into play during the screening process.

To make sure you don’t cross any legal lines, consider these tips before scouring social networking sites:

1. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Photos appearing on social networking sites often depict individuals having fun with friends and family and may not always be flattering. Judge candidates on how they present themselves during face-to-face interviews. It’s their professionalism in an office environment that you are concerned with most.

2. Check out LinkedIn for the professional point of view. While Facebook is a friends and family communication portal, LinkedIn is its professional counterpart. Reviewing LinkedIn content will give you a much better perspective of an individual’s career history, skill set and professional presentation.

3. Avoid out and out discrimination. Some managers may dig deep into a prospect’s past, and, in turn, uncover spiritual, political, social or sexual preferences in the process. Using this information and other protected categories to discriminate in the hiring process is unlawful. Some states, like California and New York, have privacy laws preventing employers from interfering with employees’ private lives.

4. Social networking sites don’t always present the facts. Many people provide inflated details about their personal lives to hide certain information or to paint a desirable picture to friends and family. Focus your hiring decisions on resumes, interviews and references to avoid relying on disinformation.

5. Add social networking rules to your company policy. The best practice to avoid misuse of social networking sites is having a written policy that clearly informs hiring managers about what information can and cannot be considered in the review process.

OSHA gets involved to discourage distracted driving

The fight to discourage texting while driving just gained new momentum. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) are partnering to build awareness about the dangers of distracted driving and reduce worker fatalities from vehicle crashes.

“It is imperative that employers eliminate financial and other incentives that encourage workers to text while driving,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. “It is well recognized that texting while driving dramatically increases the risk of a motor vehicle injury or fatality.”

Texting while driving is already a hot topic for much of the country. On the legal front, President Obama signed an executive order last year prohibiting federal employees from texting while driving, and more than 20 states make it a primary offense to text and drive. And this past spring, Oprah Winfrey and Harpo Studios declared April 30 the nation’s first “No Phone Zone Day.”

As part of its multi-pronged strategy, OSHA will launch an education campaign for employers during “Drive Safely Work Week” in early October, post an open letter to employers on its website to advance the “no texting while driving” initiative, and align with the National Safety Council and other organizations to reach out and support employers in their efforts.

What are you doing to help put the brakes on distracted driving? You can take two important steps to deter this dangerous practice: 1) Distribute an employee policy forbidding cell phone use while driving and 2) Display a workplace poster to reinforce your message.

"I'd love a vacation, but I just can't ... "

It’s a catch-22: Employees stressed to the max could really use a vacation, but they have too much going on to take one. And without a healthy balance of quality downtime, stress levels continue to mount.

According to a “Wellness in Travel” study of 1,500 Americans by Westin Hotels & Resorts, more than half of workers failed to take all their vacation days. And even though 58% of respondents felt the need for vacation, 64% canceled plans due to work worries. What’s most unfortunate? Of those surveyed, 48% said they were happier and more positive at work and home after taking a vacation.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts, the owner of Westin Hotels, wants to help. A new campaign intends to educate consumers on vacation health benefits, while also giving them a chance to win free vacations. Rest-deprived workers can visit to learn more and sign a pledge to tap their remaining vacation days before year-end. Each pledge taker is entered to win one of 200 four-day vacations at a Westin Hotel in the U.S.

Are you following Westin’s lead and making it easier for employees to get away? It’s important to create a culture that supports a healthy work-life balance that includes well-earned time off. The last thing you want is employees thinking it’s more trouble than it’s worth to take a little R&R.

Beyond an employee vacation policy that outlines days off employees are entitled to, you should create a clear, consistent procedure for employees to request vacation time and receive approval. While it’s prudent to consider peak times for your business and the availability of others to absorb vacationing employee workloads, managers need to be responsive and collaborative with any requests. Throwing your hands in the air and groaning when a request comes in doesn’t send a positive message.

It’s time to encourage employees to take time off – for their benefit, as well as the company’s!


The "ICEy" grip of immigration enforcement felt by 500+ businesses

On September 15, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) doled out Notices of Inspection (NOIs) to more than 500 businesses nationwide. If a company receives a NOI, it has three business days to prepare for an in-person meeting with federal officials … and reveal its I-9 employment verification forms and payroll documentation.

According to ICE, these particular businesses are under scrutiny due to specific leads and allegations of hiring unauthorized workers, exploiting workers and paying unfair wages. The fines for I-9 errors identified in an inspection range from $110 to $1,100 per form – with greater penalties for knowingly employing unauthorized workers.

Would your employment verification practices pass inspection? Protect your business from damaging fines and even criminal arrests with a properly completed Downloadable Form I-9 for every new employee. And for expert answers to all your I-9 compliance questions – including how to prevent an I-9 audit - turn to the easy-to-browse CD-ROM, ComplyRight™ SolveIt Now™ Answers to All Your Questions: I-9 Compliance & Immigration Law.

Stand up to workplace bullies

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." If only that were true. As it is, words can be extremely hurtful, whether they're delivered by a surly schoolmate when we're young or a cocky coworker later in life.

According to a 2007 Zogby International survey, nearly 37% of workers (or about 54 million people), have been bullied or repeatedly mistreated at work. What’s worse, bullying is on the rise. ValueOptions®, an independent behavioral health and wellness company, reports a spike in people accessing the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) due to on-the-job bullying and other aggressive behavior.

“At work, bullying can be less obvious [then on the playground] and occur over a long period of time, resulting in extreme stress and anxiety for the employee,” says Rich Paul, vice president of Health & Performance Solutions at ValueOptions. The ongoing stress can lead to physical and mental health problems, a drop in job performance and more sick days away from the office.

The top five tactics used by workplace bullies are:

1. Falsely accusing someone of errors that weren’t made
2. Staring, intimidating or otherwise showing hostility
3. Discounting a person’s thoughts during a meeting
4. Using the silent treatment to isolate
5. Exhibiting unpredictable mood swings in front of a group

As with other forms of harassment, employers are responsible for taking a zero-tolerance position against bullying and just as important, educating employees on the words and actions that can get them in trouble. Prevent workplace bullying with Harassment-Free Workplace – Take Control, an engaging, easy-to-use, four-module DVD training program.

Anti-Muslim sentiment rears its ugly head in the workplace

With the recent resurgence of anti-Muslim attitudes surrounding the proposed mosque building near Ground Zero, it’s not surprising that claims of discrimination against Muslim workers are growing, too. Unfortunately, it seems that the lessons learned - and tolerance established – after the 9/11 attacks are quickly eroding.

In an article, “Muslims face growing bias in the workplace,” an attorney with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) shares how dire the situation is:

“There is hatred, an open hatred, and a lack of tolerance for people who are Muslim,” says Mary Jo O’Neill, regional attorney for the Phoenix district office of the EEOC. “I think the mosque in Manhattan seems to be a flashpoint, but it taps into feelings that preceded it.”

And the numbers underscore that point. According to EEOC figures, claims of bias against Muslims in the workplace rose to 1,490 last year from 1,304 in 2008 (compared to 697 claims in 2004). Even more alarming, last year’s total was higher than in the year after the 9/11 event, when claims amounted to 1,463.

Bottom line: Religious discrimination is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which also bans workplace discrimination based on sex, national origin, race and color. More specifically, it requires employers to reasonably accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs of an employee or prospective employee, as long as it doesn’t pose an undue hardship for the business.

Although every situation is unique, easy accommodations that shouldn’t pose an “undue hardship” for most employers include:

• Variations to your dress or grooming code (unless it poses a safety hazard) to allow for religious garb, like a hijab
• Scheduling work activities around an employee’s religious needs
• Permitting voluntary job swaps
• Reassigning an employee
• Excusing employees from workplace programs that conflict with their religious beliefs
• Allowing the use of an empty room for prayer during break times

Beyond a collaborative approach toward workplace accommodations, it’s essential that you include diversity awareness and training in your anti-harassment initiatives.

Be sure to state in all written applications, postings and other materials that your company does not discriminate on the basis of religion when it comes to hiring, promotions, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment.

Keep in mind, too, that if you ever need to defend a harassment claim (religious or otherwise), your first line of defense will be showing that your company took measures to prevent it. To reinforce your anti-harassment and discrimination position, you should train your managers and supervisors on proper conduct with their employees and the importance of not retaliating against an employee who expresses concerns.

You should also distribute an anti-harassment policy and complaint procedure that expresses your stance against unlawful harassment and your zero tolerance for threats, taunts and any other inappropriate behavior.

Lessons learned from the recent HP sexual harassment scandal

In the aftermath of sensational headlines and Hewlett-Packard CEO Mark Hurd’s sudden resignation, one thing is painfully clear: sexual harassment covers more than just employees.

In the HP case, Hurd’s sexual harassment charge came not from a subordinate or other HP employee but from an outside contractor. This highlights the extended liability companies face when it comes to sexual harassment.

Going beyond “regular” employees

Companies are responsible for protecting a variety of people in addition to employees. This can include job applicants, vendors, temp workers and, of course, contractors. As the recent HP case shows, employees’ actions related to these non-employees can result in claims of sexual harassment.

That works both ways. Employees are also extended protection from harassment by non-employees. A female bus driver brought a case against her employer because she was assaulted by one of her developmentally disabled passengers. She won, in part, because the transportation company took no action even after the driver filed reports about the passenger exposing himself.
The current reality is that harassment of or by non-employees must be treated the same as that of standard employees.

The best offense is a good defense

Like many unwanted situations, the key to handling harassment is prevention. You can accomplish that by taking a few essential steps:

Develop a sexual harassment policy
Clearly define sexual harassment and the fact that your company does not tolerate it. Decide on disciplinary action (including termination) and explain it. Be sure to set up and include a specific procedure for reporting and investigating harassment.

Train your employees (and non-employees)
Administer annual training sessions on sexual harassment. Explain what it is, how to avoid it and what to do when and if it occurs.

Train your managers and supervisors
Conduct these sessions annually for managers and supervisors, too, but separately from employee training. It’s important that they understand the procedure for handling complaints, as well as their role in properly and speedily responding to complaints.

Know the climate
Consider talking to managers and employees (informally, of course) about the tone and mood of the work environment. Ask for their thoughts and feelings – and really listen. And be certain to keep an eye open for pictures, notes, printed e-mails, etc. that may be considered offensive.

Investigate all complaints thoroughly
By taking all sexual harassment complaints seriously, you’re more likely to minimize disruption in the workplace. An immediate investigation helps you get to the heart of the matter and communicates that your company doesn’t tolerate these actions.

Wage and hour lawsuits outnumber all other class actions combined

According to a 2010 survey of more than 1,800 legal and HR professionals, one-third of respondents were hit with a wage and hour claim in the past year. At the same time, more than half of respondents shared that their organization has increased spending for wage and hour compliance.

Shanti Atkins, the President and CEO of ELT, the workplace compliance training company that conducted the survey, explains the dramatic rise in claims: “Employers are being hit from two sides. On one, there is a better funded, more fully staffed Dept. of Labor (DOL) that has made fighting wage theft one of its key priorities. On the other side are aggressive plaintiff law firms that literally salivate at these easy-to-identify and easy-to-win, lucrative class actions.”

To complicate matters further, the DOL reports that more than 80% of employers are out of compliance with federal and state wage and hour laws! The top Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that get employers in trouble are:

• Misclassifying a non-exempt employee (eligible for overtime) as salaried/exempt
• Not paying overtime to non-exempt employees for all hours worked, including unauthorized overtime
• Making improper salary deductions from exempt and non-exempt employees

Go here for clear guidelines on how to comply with FLSA regulations – and practical forms and recordkeeping tools to keep you on track.

Tax perks under HIRE Act may push out another six months

If Congess approves the proposed legislation, the tax benefits for hiring unemployed workers under the HIRE Act will be extended by six months. These benefits include a 6.2% payroll tax incentive for unemployed workers hired from February 3, 2010, to January 1, 2011, and a $1,000 general business tax credit for each worker who stays with your company for at least one year.

The HIRE Now Tax Cut Extension of 2010 would allow employers hiring qualified employees from July 22, 2010, through June 30, 2011, to tap into the HIRE ACT benefits for an additional six months. The hope is that the legislation will advance the nation’s economic recovery by trimming the costs associated with hiring. Claim your payroll tax exemption under the new HIRE Act with Form W-11.

We will continue to monitor the situation, so check back here for updates.

Previous posts:

Are you clear on who qualifies for the HIRE Act tax benefits?

Hiring and firing and the latest legalities along the way

Hiring to get a boost with tax breaks for employers

The workplace after war: Are you ready to accommodate our returning troops?

Soon after declaring an end to the war in Iraq, President Obama withdrew the last of the U.S. combat troops from the Middle East last month – with a pledge to remove all troops from the area by the end of 2011. With thousands of our men and women heading home and stepping back into the work world, now is the time to prepare for the impact this may have on your business.

The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA) is the primary federal law governing the employment and reemployment rights of uniformed service members. In general, USERRA requires both private and public employers to provide military leave for employees, and to eliminate or reduce any employment disadvantage resulting from participation. USERRA requires you to reinstate employees upon completion of service, grant seniority and applicable benefits to returning employees, and train or otherwise qualify returning employees for reemployment. Specifically, you may not discriminate in hiring, promotion, reemployment, termination or benefits because of past, current or future military obligations.

The law requires that you educate your employees about their USERRA rights. With Poster Guard® Compliance Protection, you can be certain you’re displaying mandatory USERRA information via the federal labor law poster. G.Neil also offers an easy-to-read, downloadable E-Guide that explains the USERRA regulations and your legal responsibilities.

Don't let cold and flu season sneak up on you - prepare now!

Before you know it, the balmy days of summer will give way to crisper fall temperatures. And with the change in season comes the arrival of colds and flu. Sniffling, sneezing cold season can start up as early as September, with the aches and fever of flu not far behind it in October.

By taking the proper precautions, you can keep a cold or flu outbreak from sidelining your employees. It’s not too early to:

Encourage employees to get a flu shot. Find a local flu clinic or consider hosting an on-site flu clinic. Vaccination is the best way to prevent the flu, especially for those at higher risk, such as individuals age 65 and older, pregnant women and those with chronic illnesses.

• Educate employees about the flu and what they can do to minimize its spread. Distribute information (via handouts, emails and/or posters) on flu symptoms and how to avoid contracting or sharing germs.

• Review your sick leave policy and ensure employees understand it. Consider adopting flexible hours or allowing telecommuting for employees who need to care for themselves or a sick family member.

• Reinforce good flu-prevention hygiene with employees, such as frequent hand washing, keeping a clean work area and using tissues when sneezing or coughing. Other ways employees can minimize exposure is by limiting face-to-face time, foregoing business travel and avoiding basic greetings like shaking hands.

Keep employees informed with “flu smart” workplace posters and support frequent hand washing with hand sanitizer dispensers mounted throughout the building.

HR managers have training on the brain, according to survey

Based on a survey by OfficeTeam, a leading staffing service with more than 320 locations worldwide, HR departments are most concerned with training their employees right now. More than 500 HR managers at companies with 20 or more employees responded to the question, “Which of the following is your greatest staffing concern as a human resources professional?” The results:

45% - Training and developing employees
27% - Retaining top-performing employees
23% - Recruiting new employees
5% - None/doesn’t apply

OfficeTeam executive director Robert Hosking explains: "As workers take on expanded responsibilities, it becomes more important for companies to offer professional development to help their teams keep up. Training programs boost job satisfaction for employees by enabling them to build new skills and take on more challenging roles."

Especially today, companies are looking for programs that deliver the best training ROI. At the very least, these programs must be designed with a clear purpose and outline measurable objectives for employees to reach.

Any organization can use these top five employee training tips to help design their own training courses or to improve the ROI of any current programs:

1) Set clear goals. Identifying goals should be the first step to developing a new training program or enrolling employees in outside courses. A clear set of goals will ensure that employees complete the required course material and know what is expected of them once the program is finished.

2) Keep it ongoing. Employee training should be viewed as a way to continually learn and improve, rather than just something to check off your to-do list. With continuous training, employees will develop new skills and abilities that will improve their productivity and boost to your bottom line.

3) Keep it simple. Keep training programs focused on one topic at a time. If there are too many topics or too much information, you can easily overwhelm employees and turn training into a burden instead of an opportunity. If necessary, split up a large training program into smaller, more manageable courses.

4) Spend wisely. Do your homework and make sure you’re getting the best bang for your buck when investing in employee training. Whether you’re using an outside resource or developing an in-house training program, ensure the materials are the best quality for your budget.

5) Follow up. After the training course or seminar is complete, managers should meet with employees on a regular basis to determine the effectiveness of the training and to monitor employees’ progress. Managers can also help employees who may be struggling with any new information.

A business is only as good as the people who work for it. Help your business succeed by giving employees the tools and training to perform at their best.

Gearing up for the 1099 onslaught

Businesses need to anticipate a flurry of 1099s in 2012. Hidden deep within the recently enacted healthcare reform bill are new 1099 reporting requirements that will place significant demands on your time and resources. With this one tax change, you could find yourself filing hundreds more 1099s just to comply.

Under current law, you are required to record the income payments you make each year to non-employees on a 1099-MISC form. When the total payments to independent contractors, consultants, attorneys, vendors, healthcare professionals, trainers, freelancers and other non-employees exceed $600 in a calendar year, you issue a 1099 to the individual and file it with the IRS.

Beginning next year, many more payments will be subject to the expanded 1099 rules. For the first time, you’ll also issue 1099s to corporations - and for virtually all goods that exceed $600 in a calendar year.

When you consider all the payments you make in the course of running your business – from computer equipment and office supplies to janitorial services and overnight package delivery – you realize just how many 1099s this will entail.

Why the health care reform bill contains a 1099 change ...

The obvious question for most businesses is, “How did this sweeping tax change end up in the health care reform bill?”

Blame it on the burgeoning federal deficit. The tax change is expected to help the IRS capture an estimated $345 billion in new tax revenues, as well as offset the cost of the historic health care legislation. The reporting requirements have been on the IRS’ radar for a long time, and they finally made it in the health care reform bill.

Plan ahead so you're fully prepared

While we won’t know the ultimate impact of the new law until the IRS issues its final regulations, we do know it’s not too soon to plan for how you’ll manage the spike in 1099 filings. Stay tuned for more details on the new requirements, as well as tips for easing the paperwork burden.

Federal agencies to bump up enforcement in 2010

Last year a number of federal agencies increased their compliance enforcement efforts, including the Department of Labor (DOL), Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Recent actions by these agencies suggest that this trend will continue in 2010:

• Designed to raise employee awareness of their rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the recently launched, DOL-sponsored We Can Help campaign will undoubtedly increase the number of employee wage and hour complaints to the agency. The campaign is actively targeting the country’s lowest-paid workers, regardless of citizenship status, and encourages them to submit information, including pay stubs and hours of work, via the agency’s website. In addition, the DOL received a significant uptick in funding for 2010, and is requesting more in its proposed 2011 budget.

• Immigration enforcement is a priority for the Obama administration, and the DHS is following through with plans to conduct 25,000 on-site inspections at companies who employ workers with H-1B visas – an increase of nearly 20,000 over the previous year.

• Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis has promised more OSHA inspections, and employers can expect to see a shift to a more aggressive, citation-based approach from OSHA. Last year, between July and September, OSHA performed nearly 700 inspections and issued over 1,000 violations that resulted in $1.6 million in fines.

Enforcement efforts like the We Can Help campaign and others underscore the importance of maintaining strict compliance with federal regulations, including those covering labor, safety, tax, immigration and employment law. Stay tuned for more updates as they come.

Are you clear on who qualifies for the HIRE Act tax benefits?

To take advantage of the HIRE Act’s payroll tax exemption, you must have eligible new hires complete Form W-11. The form acts as a signed affidavit, certifying that the employee has not been employed for more than 40 hours during the 60-day period ending on the hire date.

Many employers pursuing this tax benefit continue to have questions, however. The IRS has responded by updating the HIRE Act FAQs on its website. Based on new details from the IRS, you should be aware that:

• As long as other requirements are met, self-employed individuals qualify, which makes you eligible for the payroll tax exemption if you hire an independent contractor as an employee.

• To meet the hiring date requirement of a qualified employee (hired after Feb. 3, 2010, and before Jan. 1, 2011), an individual’s start date must follow “general principles” relating to employment. Employment begins on the date when, based on specific facts and circumstances, the employer-employee relationship is first established.

• Generally, an employee does not qualify if he or she is hired to replace an existing employee unless the former employee 1) voluntarily terminated employment, 2) was terminated due to gross negligence, 3) was terminated for poor performance, or 4) was terminated in a reduction in force due to lack of work.

• A minor can sign the Form W-11.

The Downloadable Form W-11 from G.Neil includes a FREE Tip Sheet with helpful do’s and don’ts, and advice for identifying qualifying employees under the federal HIRE act.

Fed-up JetBlue flight attendant ... hothead or hero?

We’ve all had horrible days at work that almost sent us over the edge. But we bury the stress and swallow back the urge to yell “I quit” and walk out the door.

Not Steven Slater. For cursing out a customer, grabbing a beer and fleeing the plane via the emergency exit chute, this JetBlue flight attendant has captured America’s attention. In fact, burned-out workers across the country are propping Slater up as a hero after his highly publicized workplace rant.

As two readers shared in an article:

“How many of us can honestly say we haven’t wanted to do the same thing? Steve is a working class hero!”

“Maybe not the best way to quit your job but hey, sometimes enough is enough.”

But the fantasy of telling your boss off could quickly collide with the reality of being jobless. As the article explains:

Some may see Slater as a hero because they know they don’t have the luxury to speak out like that in their own lives. While Slater may have felt great after finally letting loose in such a public way, the fact is that most of us need our jobs more than we need that release. And most of us realize that such a dramatic move can carry heavy consequences, such as the felony charges that Slater is currently facing.

When all is said and done, we need our jobs … and we need to find ways to cope with the frustrations that come with them. We may sympathize with and applaud Slater for his actions, but would we do the same and risk losing our jobs?

10 tips for surviving an I-9 audit

In a strategic plan to step up enforcement of immigration-related employment laws, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will be knocking on more doors and conducting more workplace inspections in the coming years.

While certain industries are more vulnerable to investigations (such as agriculture, construction, hospitality and food processing), all employers need to take the proper steps to protect themselves and prevent I-9 violations.

1. Store I-9 forms in separate binders (not in employee personnel files) for current employees and terminated employees.
2. Print a list of all current employees, including name and date of hire.
3. Use the correct, most up-to-date version of the I-9 form.
4. Refuse any document with a past-due expiration date when completing the I-9 form for a new hire.
5. Do not verify U.S. passports or passport cards, Permanent Resident or Resident Alien Cards, or List B Identity documents.
6. Re-verify expiring work authorization documents before they expire – and do not allow an employee to continue working after the work authorization document expires.
7. Conduct a self-audit of your I-9 forms to make sure they are complete and accurate.
8. Avoid discrimination or document abuse with your I-9 form process.
9. Accept the document and complete Section 2 of the I-9 form if the document(s) presented by the employee is on the List of Acceptable Documents, appears to be genuine and relates to the person presenting it.
10. Stand up for your rights! If ICE shows up to conduct an audit, insist on a written Notice of Inspection and your right to three business days before you share your original I-9 forms.

In addition to the mandatory Form I-9, G.Neil offers practical information and tools to help you properly complete I-9s and maintain organized, up-to-date records.

OSHA issues a new program to prevent chemical-related workplace hazards ... more safety inspections to follow

Effective July 8, 2010, a new directive by OSHA will assist enforcement personnel in carrying out a National Emphasis Program to eliminate workplace accidents associated with the catastrophic release of highly hazardous chemicals. The PSM Covered Chemical Facilities National Emphasis Program will include programmed inspections in three regions:

• Region I – Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island
• Region VII – Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri
• Region X – Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Idaho

Unprogrammed inspections will be conducted in seven other OSHA regions, as well.

(Basically, programmed inspections are based on “objective or neutral” criteria, while unprogrammed inspections are in response to “alleged hazardous working conditions that have been identified at a specific worksite.”)

The new directive will focus primarily on chemical processing facilities, refineries, and water and/or wastewater treatment facilities. More than 15,000 facilities nationwide could face inspections as a result.

Improve your safety practices and prepare for an OSHA inspection with the ComplyRight™ SolveIt Now™ Answers to All Your Questions: OSHA Compliance.

Operation "Email cleanup" - Purging the profanity before you hit 'Send'

Got a potty mouth? If you work for Goldman Sachs Group Inc., you’ll need to clean it up and edit out the expletives in your email exchanges.

After an embarrassing slip of the tongue received national attention in recent Congressional hearings, Goldman Sachs is now prohibiting employees from swearing in emails.

For the New York company, this means 34,000 traders, investment bankers and other employees must now avoid a vast vocabulary of dirty words often uttered on Wall Street. Goldman Sachs’ disinfected communications policy will be carried out by screening software, which detects and flags common swear words and acronyms.

Goldman Sachs’ no-swearing policy extends to instant messages and texts from company-issued cellphones and emails. Inappropriate emails could make their way to the compliance department, while others might be blocked completely, depending on the severity of the language.

A Goldman spokeswoman said: "Of course we have policies about the use of appropriate language and we are always looking for ways to ensure that they are enforced."

Goldman Sachs is not the only employer taking a stand against off-color communications. This past June, Citigroup told employees in a memo that "recent headlines involving inappropriate emails are an important reminder to 'think before writing, read before sending'. Citigroup doesn’t enforce any formal discipline, but chronic swearers may be approached by their managers and asked to clean up their language.

Another company concerned about profanity-peppered communications is New York-based media company Bloomberg LP. It claims to have monitored emails for more than 10 years with an application that scans messages for 70 profane words and phrase - in English and several other languages.

What about your company? Do you have a formal policy prohibiting swearing in email communications? Do you worry about looking less professional if employees send emails that contain profanity?

When the bride-to-be is busy planning her wedding on work time

I ran across an article on that I found particularly interesting. First, because summer is a busy season for weddings and second, because I’ve known a few women who became a tad obsessed planning their walk down the aisle.

According to a survey of 1,000 women by, and, brides-to-be spend about 10 hours a week planning their wedding – and nearly 30 percent of it is done at work.

But apparently it’s all in the name of multi-tasking. While nine out of 10 women who participated in the survey admitted to making wedding plans on company time, only a third felt their work was negatively affected.

Carley Roney, editor-in-chief of, says that lunch time and Mondays are particularly busy times on her wedding planning website.

Cause for concern … or let it go?

OK, so what’s an employer or manager to do when Megan is more concerned about the bridesmaids’ dresses, guest list and floral arrangements than the latest workplace project or report?

If you feel the same way as Carley Roney, the answer may be to “not sweat it” because the productivity will come back that much stronger after the nuptials.

"Post wedding, people become much more serious and focused. They are saving for
homes, so they're not in the mind of changing jobs as much because they're very
focused on what their goals are ahead," says Roney.

So what do you think? Have you ever had to intervene because an employee was more concerned about her wedding than her work? Are weddings an inevitable productivity drainer – or can the bride-to-be strike a healthy balance and stay on task?

A quick refresher of the Form W-4 tax-filing rules

In a recent review of the current Form W-4 (Employee’s Withholding Allowance Certificate) at the 28th Annual APA Congress in Washington, D.C., a handful of rules were revisited and reinforced. As a reminder:

• High school and college students are not automatically exempt from tax withholding, even if all the prior year’s taxes were refunded. In addition, students must meet all the same exemption tests as other employees.

• Employees claiming a withholding exemption must file a new Form W-4 every year.

• You may develop and use substitute Forms W-4, but you must also provide the table, worksheets and instructions contained in the form. You may not use a substitute developed by an employee, however.

• An electronic Form W-4 may be filed as long as it meets certain requirements.

• E-mails to change a Form W-4 are discouraged, as they are not a legitimate electronic system.

• Nonresident aliens filing Form W-4 have certain restrictions on their status, number of allowances and inability to claim the standard deduction.

Stock up on the required Form W-4 to meet the IRS filing requirements for new hires and tax status changes for current employees.

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