Six months ago Stefanie Riehl of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association switched roles from being a lobbyist for the NJBIA to operating a hotline for businesses that need outside guidance on human resources problems. The job has given her new insights into the problems businesses face, and it has also given her plenty of fodder for war stories.

“I have plenty of material for every cocktail party,” she says.

Riehl will share some of those stories, and her advice for dealing with common HR problems, at the New Jersey Human Resources Management Association of Princeton on Monday, May 9, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency Princeton. Tickets are $45 for members, $50 for non-members. For more information, visit www.hrma-nj.shrm.org or E-mail hrmanj_info@yahoo.com.

The NJBIA offers the business hotline as a service to its members. It offers consultation and guidance, but not legal advice, Riehl says. Riehl, however, is an expert in HR and employment law. After growing up in Hamilton, where her father was a firefighter and her mother worked in human resources for the state government, she went to the College of New Jersey and earned a master’s in public administration from Syracuse. After completing her education, she became a lobbyist and helped draft some of the legislation that governs employee relations today.

She has taken about 300 calls so far for general business questions, while the NJBIA also has staff to handle more technical fields like environmental issues. “It’s great because I am constantly helping employers every day,” she said. “We never know what type of a question is going to come in. It’s been a fantastic position.”

Riehl said businesses often have questions about employee leave. “It really confuses a lot of employers because there are eight separate laws that can govern employee leave,” she said. She recently fielded a call where an employer wanted to know if step-grandparents could take family leave to take care of their step-grandchild. The case was a complicated one, but Riehl dug through the laws and found the crux of the issue: the step-grandparents were adopting the child and were listed as “resource parents” on all the documentation. “We can never give legal advice,” she said. “But we found the specific section of the law that we think pertains.”

Another common issue is dealing with problem employees. What to do about the office rabble-rouser? How about the one who demands access to his personnel file? What if the employer thinks a worker is about to leave?

Riehl said the blanket advice that applies to all employees who are causing trouble is to communicate with them openly. For instance, if someone is violating the code of conduct, it’s a good idea to issue verbal or written warnings and keep a record of them either way.

“By the time an employer calls us they are often already at their wit’s end: ‘I want to get rid of this person.’ We have to talk about that,” Riehl said. “What policies do you have in place? What actions have been taken? Because in a lot of instances, in a workplace, you don’t want to hurt feelings or create conflict. Often people who are about to get fired haven’t gotten bad performance reviews.” Open communication can make things easier in the event that an employee has to be fired, but it can also let the employee know exactly what areas they are falling short in, and how they can improve. “Employers should understand they have an obligation to employees to provide continuous feedback. That really is the best practice. And document, document, document.”

Riehl said that many employers are under the impression that since New Jersey is an at-will employment state, they can fire anyone at any time for no reason. That is technically true, but doing that without a proper paper trail of employee problems leaves them open to discrimination lawsuits. That also assumes that there is no contract or collective bargaining agreement that covers termination.

“If you’re not following the right procedures, you can open yourself up to a lawsuit,” Riehl said. While employers can terminate anyone at any time for anything, there is a flip side: “Anybody can sue anyone else at any time, for anything.” If an employer has no policies and can’t show good cause for a firing, they are potentially vulnerable to the worker claiming they were let go for being a minority, or a veteran, or the only person in the office over 40, or whatever the circumstance may be.

Riehl said she has seen some new trends in workplace behavior through fielding complaints. “One of the major complaints we have is that people arrive at work not dressed professionally,” she said. “Employers are not finding people with the right soft skills. People are in interviews and taking calls on their cell phones.” Other employers are finding that increasingly workers have been slack about showing up on time.

Dress is a sensitive issue, but Riehl said a good dress code in an employee handbook, with exceptions noted for religious garb, can go a long way towards improving things. The NJBIA holds workshops on dress codes as well as other etiquette-related issues such as how to teach younger workers to leave text-speak out of E-mails.

In a more extreme case of worker misbehavior, Riehl recently spoke with the owner of a business where a recently fired employee had begun following their old supervisor home. “In that case we advised the employer to call the police,” she said. While that may be the most obvious piece of advice ever, Riehl said it’s sometimes hard to see the situation for what it is when you’re in the midst of it. That’s why it’s helpful to call someone with a more objective point of view for advice.

“Sometimes you just need a little bit of perspective,” she said.

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