Supervisors: Put HR On Your Side To Protect Yourself From Personal Legal Liability

by paulfalconehr.com on September 21, 2014

As line managers in corporate America, it’s important for you to understand a few things about maximizing your relationship with your company’s Human Resources team. After all, when done right, HR can be an incredible resource – both for strategic partnering on business issues as well as for confidential, off-the-record discussions about your own future career plans. When applied the wrong way, however, this “tool” that HR represents may seem to provide yet another barrier to getting things done the way you want. Here are some insights into understanding how HR can help you do a better job managing your employees while minimizing any personal liability that might come your way.hrgraphic

It’s a little known fact that in many states, managers found guilty of unlawful employment decisions could be personally penalized up to $50,000 for engaging in what are known as “managerial bad acts” (i.e., acting outside the course of scope of your employment).

First, seeing that HR is a class in every MBA program, you’ve got to understand that the HR discipline, broadly speaking, is about managing and motivating people and maximizing employee productivity. As such, it’s a portable skill that continuously needs to be explored and honed throughout your career. What many managers fail to realize, however, is that working with and through HR can significantly mitigate or outright eliminate any personal liability that might come your way as a supervisor in corporate America.

HR on the Front Line by Your Side

For HR to be effective, it’s got to be on the front-end of employee interventions. Nothing is appreciated more by line managers than when they can go to HR for guidance and support on handling potentially adverse or hostile employment actions and they find a true ally who partners with them and has their backs. On the flip side, nothing is more frustrating to HR staff than having to fix a people problem once it has reached a crisis level. HR’s key purpose, after all, is to support management in making the best people decisions for the company.

 As a line manager, you need support in resolving people issues and maximizing staff performance. If you’re fortunate enough to have an HR resource on board, then be sure and use it to your advantage.

One of the greatest areas where HR can provide you with invaluable support lies in the employee relations (ER) arena. Supervisors hate having to discipline or terminate staff members or engage in the “progressive discipline” steps that typically precede a termination for cause. As a result, it’s not uncommon for many managers to delay the inevitable with under-performing employees and avoid confrontation, hoping that the problem will simply fix itself. As is usually the case, problems continue to build until some magic straw breaks the camel’s back, and then managers explode into crisis mode and want the employee fired immediately.

Ouch—way too much drama . . . Remember, HR doesn’t want to be seen as an obstacle to management. Indeed, it’s arguably the case that one of HR’s key responsibilities lies in insulating companies from the bad acts of its employees. When HR only first learns of a manager’s desire to fire someone at that crisis point, its only recourse lies in examining the merit of the case from a legal standpoint. It starts by pulling the employee’s personnel file to see what kind of a paper record exists. More often that not, HR finds little if any progressive discipline (AKA written and final written warnings) that can help justify a termination for cause.

When that’s the case, HR has no choice but to nix the termination because there’s no paper record to support it. The only solution that HR could offer, instead, would be to begin the progressive discipline process from scratch by composing a first written warning. Unfortunately, that makes HR appear to be the “red tape” machine that stops you from taking the action steps that you feel are necessary and warranted to keep your operation running smoothly. How much easier it would have been had HR been involved earlier in the process: With prior warnings documented and substandard annual performance reviews on file, this final incident that “broke the camel’s back” could have indeed justified a clean termination decision with minimal fear of legal recourse.

HR Can Insulate You from Personal Liability

In addition, don’t inadvertently take on personal liability yourself for issues that occur in the workplace: They don’t pay you enough to shoulder responsibility that could jeopardize your home or savings. It’s a little known fact that in many states, managers found guilty of unlawful employment decisions could be personally penalized up to $50,000 for engaging in what are known as “managerial bad acts” (i.e., acting outside the course of scope of your employment). In fact, in the Golden State of California, there’s no limit to how much a supervisor can be sued for personally. (Tell me that’s not scary!) The best way to insulate yourself from potential charges of personal liability lies in getting the hot potato off your lap and having everything blessed by HR first before taking any type of potentially adverse action (like termination) against one of your employees.

Don’t Walk Alone

Line managers historically have avoided HR like the government. The old mantra “Keep it inside the family” is still alive and well in corporate America, especially seeing that managers traditionally have come to believe that if they couldn’t handle a problem in their group themselves, they’d be perceived as weak. Nonsense! As a line manager, you need support in resolving people issues and maximizing staff performance. If you’re fortunate enough to have an HR resource on board, then be sure and use it to your advantage. Your partnership with HR, when forged early in the relationship, will provide you with key strategic advantages to insulate you and your company from charges and challenges that may come your way in the employment litigation arena.