Being a supervisor in any industry can be tough when you’re just starting out, and the job is made even tougher by the confusing legal issues that you might have to face. What if an employee wants to take time off for family leave? Does the state, or the federal family leave law apply? If they need an accommodation for a disability, what is a “reasonable” accommodation? And who decides what’s “reasonable” and what’s not?
For businesses that aren’t large enough to hire an employment lawyer to tackle these issues, the New Jersey Business and Industry Association is there to fill the gap. The NJBIA is hosting a workshop on new supervisor training, hosted by four employment lawyers, on Friday, June 26, from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Forsgate Country Club. The cost is $89 for NJBIA members and $129 for non-members. For more information, visit www.njbia.org or call 609-393-7707, ext. 9481.
Stephanie Riehl, who is moderating the seminar, has a background in HR and employment law. She grew up in Hamilton Township, where her father was a Trenton firefighter and her mother worked in HR for the state government. She is a graduate of the College of New Jersey and Syracuse, where she got a master’s degree in public administration.
Riehl even helped draft employment laws as a lobbyist. Part of the NJBIA’s mission is to represent employers’ interests in the state government, and Riehl helped work on state-level healthcare legislation in the early 2000s. The NJBIA is unique among trade organizations because of its emphasis on holding frequent training seminars such as this one, Riehl says.
One area where rookie supervisors can easily get out of their depth is with family leave law. “In some cases there may be multiple leave laws that apply to employees,” Riehl says. “It all gets confusing. It’s an alphabet soup of laws that employers have to cover.”
On the federal level, there is the Employee Family Leave Act. Then there is the New Jersey family leave act. Both laws provide for job protection. The state family leave act allows employees to get income replacement from leave insurance and temporary disability insurance, if applicable. The leave insurance applies to companies of all sizes, but the job protection only kicks in for companies with 50 or more employees.
But it’s even more complicated than that: “Here’s the kicker,” Riehl says. “Even if you wouldn’t necessarily qualify for protected leave under the Family Leave Act, you may qualify for protected leave under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination or the Americans with Disabilities Act.” The federal ADA laws kick in with companies with 15 or more employees. For example, if someone has to have surgery during pregnancy and develops a chronic health condition, her maternity leave could become protected due to the ADA.
One of the more common questions Riehl gets is how long does an employer have to hold a job open for someone on family leave? “There is no magic number,” Riehl says. “It has to be decided on a case by case basis.”
Discipline is another area where rookies risk making mistakes. “It’s important for new supervisors to understand the need to document issues with an employee,” Riehl says. For example, if an employee is habitually late, a supervisor may want to take some sort of corrective action. But in order to do so, it would be wise to give them warnings first. “If you’ve never told the employee that they’ve been late and that it’s not acceptable, then it might not be appropriate to discipline them at that time,” Riehl says. “Communicate with them first. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and document it before you take any action against them.”
Punishing an employee right off the bat is bad for morale. “If your employee is told in a performance review that they need to improve because they’re always late, for instance, it would have been helpful if you had told them that ahead of time. A performance review should not be the first time they’re seeing there is a problem. The worst case scenario is you expose yourself to lawsuits.”
Another possible realm for mistakes is when an employee asks for an accommodation for a disability. Under the ADA, employers must provide a “reasonable” accommodation, for example, giving them a special piece of equipment, or allowing them flex time. Employers can err by not giving a reasonable accommodation when one is warranted.
However, it’s also possible to make a mistake in the other direction. For instance, Riehl says, if a coffee shop employee says they cannot work mornings and asks to work only in the evenings, it’s likely that no reasonable accommodation could be made. Riehl recommends talking with the employee to reach a reasonable solution.
“Reasonable is a loaded word and it’s very subjective,” Riehl says. “That’s why it’s important to educate employers about best practices in the industry.”
A large part of the seminar will be devoted to studying what other employers are doing. Why improvise, when other companies have already put successful policies in place?
“This is where best practices come into play,” Riehl says. “We tell companies what other companies do, and what the standards are, and walk them through the process of talking to an employee.” Then maybe, by learning from the veterans, a supervisor can avoid those rookie mistakes.