Michael S. Cohen

Human resources professionals have their share of tough situations to deal with: keeping on top of changing labor laws, implementing policies to ensure their company is in compliance with the laws, creating guidelines to prevent problems, and knowing what action to take if problems occur.

To help HR staff navigate the legal and personal challenges within their field, the Human Resources Management Association (HRMA) of Princeton will present “Dear Helga: You’re Not Going to Believe What My Employee Did This Time!” on Monday, April 8, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Princeton Hyatt Regency, Carnegie Center. Tickets are $65. Register online at hrma-nj.shrm.org/events/2019.

The session will be led by Michael S. Cohen (not the former Trump “fixer” Cohen) who will draw from his experience as a partner with the Philadelphia law firm Duane Morris LLP, working in the employment, labor, benefits and immigration practice group. His presentation will focus on uncommon HR issues and will examine practical, business-focused solutions for solving problems.

The idea of presenting his talks as answers from Helga to HR professionals and managers allows Cohen to create vignettes about real issues that business people can relate to, Cohen says. At the Princeton dinner, he will address harassment in the Me Too workplace.

Cohen says that we can learn from mistakes employers frequently made in 2018. The most common ones include:

• Allowing non-defenses (excuses) such as saying a comment was just a joke or excusing a person’s behavior because “that’s just how he/she is,” or making exceptions because someone is “an important person.”

• Failure to take action because no one complained.

• Failure to take action when a complaint is shared privately or “off the record.”

• Not taking corrective action because a supervisor or manager doesn’t like conflict, says he/she doesn’t have time or assumes if they ignore it, it will “go away.”

• Ignoring non-sex protected classes, for example, age, disability, gender identity race, religion, military status, or pregnancy.

• Not investigating when it is required, for instance, when an employee brings a complaint directly to HR, an anonymous complaint capable of investigation, a complaint upon involuntary termination, and others.

• Failure to train managers and non-managers, including bystander responsibility.

To address potential issues, Cohen recommends that HR departments have policies in place that insure the company is following Equal Employment Opportunity laws. There should be policies specific to different forms of harassment including sex, race ethnicity, age, disability, sexual orientation, and religion.

The policy needs to apply to electronic communications and offsite meetings or events, and should also apply to non-employees, like clients, vendors or board members. Finally, there should be a no-retaliation pledge.

As someone who has conducted more than 250 trainings throughout the country this past year, Cohen covers all the issues HR professionals deal with on a regular basis, including workplace diversity; discipline and discharge; hiring and recruiting practices; and performance evaluations.

He counsels HR departments on compliance with Equal Employment Opportunity laws, the Family Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act. He also covers leave of absence policies, sexual orientation and gender identity, substance abuse testing, background checks, teens in the workplace and other employment related topics.

While growing up, his father was a psychologist and his mother, a teacher. Cohen, who holds a law degree from Temple, says his interest in employment law has been influenced, in part, by his mother’s experience. When she was a little over three months pregnant, she was informed by her employer that she had to take mandatory maternity leave despite her desire to continue teaching. To make a long story short, her case was eventually won and was called a victory for all women.

HRMA of Princeton traces its beginning to 1943 when the group was named the Delaware Valley Personnel Association. HRMA serves companies from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. In addition to hosting Cohen’s presentation, the group hosts several events throughout the year including monthly dinner meetings. The next meeting takes place Monday, May 13 and will focus on the role of leadership as a purpose rather than a position.

Cohen’s advice to managers and HR professionals is to think “prevention,” That’s far better than not interacting with employees until a problem occurs, he says. It’s important to be able to show employees empathy and respect and have conversations with them on a day-to-day basis.

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