The health and safety of our animals is at the forefront of any veterinary practice owner’s priorities; however, it is important to remember the employment regulations applicable to your practice while providing this care.
Veterinary practice owners are enduring increased scrutiny over their business operations, and it is imperative that practitioners comply with applicable labor and employment laws to ensure that their practice runs seamlessly and cost-efficiently. Lawsuits can be expensive and distracting for any business owner.
The following shall provide a few tips and tricks for staying out of a legal battle and keeping your practice on track.
Implement and Update Written Policies. Anti-harassment and discrimination policies and other related policies prohibiting inappropriate conduct in the workplace are an absolute necessity for any veterinary practice. These policies should be in writing and included in the Employee Handbook (if you do not have one, you should get one) that is distributed to all employees and readily accessible through the practice manager or employee intranet. Any harassment or discrimination policy should describe the type of conduct that is considered inappropriate and set forth examples of improper behavior.
A written anti-harassment and discrimination policy is a practice owner’s key defense to any claim of unlawful conduct against the employer. Written policies also encourage a harassment-free work environment that promotes employee retention and longevity. This is the perfect time to implement and update any written policies so that your practice can begin the new year with a fresh start.
Establish Internal Complaint Procedures. The small size of many offices and clinics fosters an intimate environment where employees consider themselves to be friends, rather than co-workers. While this generally creates a congenial atmosphere, oftentimes employees can become too comfortable. A comment about a person’s age, a joking sexual innuendo or an offensive email meme can quickly turn from friendly banter to fodder for a lawsuit.
Federal law forbids employment discrimination against individuals on the basis of age, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, national origin or citizenship, among other factors. The laws in this area continue to expand to encompass a myriad of scenarios and circumstances common to veterinary practices.
It is important for you to handle allegations consistently, legally and appropriately. Employees should be encouraged to report any instances of harassment or discrimination, including instances that they personally experience and those that they witness. Whether it be a complaint of alleged harassment by a co-worker or a patient’s owner, having a written, internal grievance procedure in place at the time a complaint arises will help to ensure that you are aware of the complaint at the outset, and that the appropriate steps are taken to address the complaint.
A thorough investigation must be conducted for every complaint of harassment or discrimination. Failure to perform any investigation, in and of itself, will expose your practice to liability, regardless of the legitimacy of the complaint. Your legal representative and human resources advisors should always be consulted when conducting such investigations. When dealing with a sexual harassment allegation in particular, emotions are high and employees can become “creative” with the version of events they choose to recall, and there is always divergent interpretations of what actually occurred. The personnel conducting the investigation should be empathetic, but otherwise emotionally neutral to the involved parties in order to avoid any accusations of pretext or bias that could provide the basis for a future lawsuit.
It is critical to emphasize the fact that an employee will not be retaliated against for making a complaint of harassment or discrimination. It is common for a supervisor or colleague to treat an employee who has made a complaint differently, especially in a close work environment. Employees may ridicule the complaining employee or avoid the complaining employee entirely. This cannot be tolerated, and for this reason, it is imperative that investigations be conducted confidentially.
Train Management on Policies. Managers are the eyes and ears for practice owners. It is critical that managers are trained on how to respond to employee complaints. They should be well-versed in the practice’s internal grievance procedure and policies, and prepared to follow them upon learning of a complaint. Managers should be trained to report complaints, or even anticipated complaints, to upper management immediately. A manager’s knowledge of employee complaints—even if not reported to the practice owner—can be imputed to the practice owner. Such knowledge will impose considerable liability upon the practice if the underlying complaints are found to be substantiated.
It is important to remember that harassment and discrimination can be in many forms. This includes not only improper conduct by a supervisor or between co-workers, but also improper conduct by a patient’s owner. Indeed, on many occasions, employees are alone in treatment rooms with only the animal as the witness. Further, employees at boarding facilities may be alone with another co-worker overnight—a scenario enflaming personal relationships or harassment. Recognizing the proclivity of employees to be placed in situations in which improper conduct may occur and establishing policies and procedures to safeguard against such conduct will keep employees safe and happy, and avoid expensive litigation.
Ensure Hourly Employees Are Properly Compensated For Their Work. Wage and hour litigation is becoming increasingly expensive and burdensome for employers. To avoid this litigation, practice owners must keep track of the hours worked for all hourly employees and properly compensate them for any such hours. This includes overtime (over 40 hours in a week, or certain hours in a day, depending on state) and breaks (where applicable), and ensuring that employees are not performing any work off-the-clock (such as administrative work). This is particularly critical for any hourly employees who are working remotely. It is difficult to monitor the work hours of remote employees when they are not subject to in-person supervision, and especially when employees are not keeping accurate and detailed records of their work hours.
Veterinary practice owners should also pay attention to any applicable reporting time pay requirements for their state. Many states require employers to compensate an employee for reporting to work even if the employee is sent home due to lack of business needs, sickness, etc.
Maintain Accurate Records. Federal law requires employers to maintain payroll records for at least four years. Personnel files must be maintained for at least three years. Aside from these federally mandated retention periods, it is in your practice’s best interest to keep employment-related documents.
Maintaining employee time records, including any lunch breaks provided (if required in your state), will provide a defense against any wage and hour claims concocted by former employees that are difficult to rebut. In addition, requiring employees to acknowledge receipt of handbooks and other policies against harassment and discrimination, and keeping these acknowledgments in employee personnel files, will put your practice a step ahead of any claims of discrimination or harassment.
Following these tips will help shelter your veterinary practice from potential lawsuits so that you can focus your efforts on providing the best care to your patients instead of defending against a meritless lawsuit. +