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Hazardous Weather Policies That Won't Make Employees Cry "Foul"

When the weather outside is frightful, relationships between employers and workers can quickly turn to icy. To ensure your employees don’t start freezing you out, it’s important to have an inclement weather policy in place.

The past two winters have been especially tough in many parts of the U.S. Even summers can be rough in areas prone to thunderstorms, flash floods and hurricanes. When extreme weather hits, it can be a real conundrum for employers and employees alike. If the latter are expected to show up for work yet fear driving in adverse weather conditions, they may fear telling their supervisor — and call in sick instead. Others may join suit, resulting in lost productivity as well as resentment among those employees who did make it in that day. Some employees may have jobs that allow them to work from home on foul weather days, while others don’t.

Some ideas to consider as you set your company’s policy:

  • Make it clear if sick or personal days can be used. Draft a policy that indicates whether employees may use paid time off (PTO) — personal or sick days, or both — in order to be paid if the office is open but they are not comfortable driving in.  Deductions for absences of a day or more because of bad weather are not specifically allowed for exempt employees by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) regulations. However, the Department of Labor has drafted two opinion letters that indicates employers can require exempt workers to use paid leave when absent because of weather-related conditions. Letter I  Letter 2 
  • Where hourly employees are concerned, on days that the facility does not open (and especially when notice has been given) the FLSA does not require that they be paid. If the workplace is being kept open, and employees are allowed to either leave early or come in late of their own volition, hourly workers are usually not paid for the time off. If hourly employees do come to work and are asked to stay until a final decision is being made regarding the workplace being open, they must be paid.
  • Schools are closed, yet the office is open. What should working parents do when schools are closed but they must report to work?  Companies can empower supervisors to deal with this situation on a case-by-case basis. They can also assist parents with the burden of paying for childcare on snow days through Employee Assistance Programs such as Just in Time Care, which reimburses employees a set amount per year (for example, $250 or $300) for childcare costs associated with unexpected emergencies.
  • Ensure the office is a safe place to work that day. If employees are required to report to work in inclement weather, they should not arrive to an unplowed parking lot, icy walkways or lack of heat. Morale and productivity plummet when workers make Herculean efforts to get to the office only to find they can’t work there after all. Assign someone — ideally, an individual who lives close to the workplace — to make sure the facility is up and running before calling workers in. Also, keep an eye on the forecasts. One East Coast storm last winter delivered a double-whammy: a second snowstorm eight hours on the heels of the first. You don’t want employees marooned at the office if the weather worsens.
  • Communicate how they will receive notice of a closing. Your emergency closing policy should outline how workers will know if the company is closed. A chain telephone system works, as does a notice on the company website or a special phone number employees can call to hear a weather-related message.   

Employers must balance employee safety with business needs by putting an established policy in place well in advance. Weather forecasters often miss the mark, and two inches of snow can turn into two dozen.   

Political Activities in the Workplace

In a presidential election year, with state presidential primaries about to begin and with many Senate and House seats on the line, where do employers draw the line when it comes to political activities in the workplace? In today’s politically charged environment — fueled in part by cable TV news programs, Internet blogs and radio talk shows — it is especially important that employers are aware of federal laws relating to political activities in the workplace. 

Since candidates, political parties and the media will be stirring debate and discourse through most of 2012, it’s to be expected that some employees will be bringing their opinions, loyalties and arguments into the workplace. They may wear political buttons, ask coworkers to donate to or volunteer for a political campaign, or engage in a heated political discussion at the water cooler. This can be distracting and even intimidating to other workers.

While the National Labor Relations Act protects some forms of workplace political advocacy, there are distinct limitations employers should be aware of.  In order for activity to be protected, the legislation states that there must be “a direct nexus between the specific issue that is the subject of the advocacy and a specifically identified employment concern of the participating employees.”

Protected political activities would be those that are directly related to employees’ specific working conditions, for example, support of paid sick leave or raising the minimum wage.

On the flip side, issues unrelated to working conditions, such as support for election of a particular candidate or group of candidates without reference to specific employment-related issues, would not fall within protected activity. Neither would political advocacy or discussion resulting in disruption to the workplace operations.

Employers also must stay on the right side of the law. They should never press employees to vote for a particular candidate or to contribute to a political action committee (PAC).

Here are some steps companies can take to control political conduct in the workplace: 

  • Implement an email policy that limits email use to business purposes only. This will reduce any political activity employees may engage in through inter-office email.
  • Be sure all employees have received copies of company policies regarding solicitation and distribution, email usage, and political decorations, accessories or clothing.
  • Have a no-solicitation/distribution policy. This would restrict an employee’s attempt to ask other employees to vote for certain candidates or hand out political literature during work time.
  • Restrict employees from personal conversations during work time, which would include any non work-related subject.  
  • Be consistent. For example, don’t require employees to remove their pro-Democratic political buttons while allowing others to wear their pro-Republican ones. If you’re inconsistent, you might face a lawsuit.
  • Never press employees to vote for a particular candidate or to contribute to a PAC.

For a sample political activities in the workplace policy to use as a guide, check out the version used by 3M

Regular Ethics and Compliance Training Reduces Your Risk

One of the most frightening facts about today’s business world is this: an entire organization can be held criminally liable for any of its employees’ illegal actions.

In today’s business world, the importance of corporate accountability has never been more critical. Thanks largely to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, a federal law which oversees public company accountability, ethics training is no longer a choice, but has become commonplace within companies worldwide, regardless of size and within all types of entities whether privately owned, not-for-profit or public.

Navigating the increasingly complex web of workplace compliance laws can seem daunting. Yet as recent court decisions, federal guidelines and state laws have made clear, it is critical for companies to provide employees with a compliance training program on certain laws and ethics-related topics. Such training is key to building an ethical culture. By communicating your values and principles and ensuring that workers know what your policies say, you will reduce your overall risk and boost your company’s performance. 

Regular compliance and ethics training helps you ensure that your workers understand and comply with applicable laws and policies. A formal training program can save your company money by reducing the number of legal claims and the costs of investigating, litigating and resolving them. By making their best efforts to prevent wrongdoing in their ranks, companies can reduce the prospect of criminal activity and create a “good citizenship” model.

Training topics may include ethical decision-making; security, data and intellectual property ethics; policies regarding observing and reporting suspected wrongdoing without fear of reprisal; and Sarbanes-Oxley itself.   

No matter your size or your industry, your business is at risk for a variety of legal, operational and financial issues that can negatively impact your work environment, and ultimately, your bottom line. In addition to our anonymous compliance and reporting hotline, the ethics training programs such as those offered by Lighthouse are a key tool that can further shield your company from risk. 

When an employee witnesses unethical or illegal activity, they are put in a difficult position. A recent study found that 71 percent of hotline users wouldn’t notify their supervisor of a suspected issue, and more than half desire to remain anonymous.   

As the 10th anniversary of Sarbanes-Oxley approaches, it is becoming increasingly clear that regulators want companies not only to “talk the talk” but “walk the walk.”  In the past, they have been satisfied with companies that have implemented compliance programs. In 2012, more regulatory authorities will be looking for proof that such programs are actually in place.

If you want to adhere to the highest standards of ethics and integrity, it all starts with your employees. Don’t underestimate the importance of conducting regular ethics and compliance training sessions.

What the U.K.’s Bribery Act of 2010 Means to You

Successful global companies should realize that along with access to global markets comes a responsibility to assume high standards of ethical business conduct. The fight against corruption emerged as one of the most significant issues during the 2004 enlargement of the European Union. Yet surprisingly, in an increasingly open international marketplace, there is still no international anti-corruption law or standard. However, overseas nations are individually beginning to establish stringent laws on bribery and corruption, and the United Kingdom is leading the way.

The Bribery Act of 2010, which went into effect on July 1, 2011, may be a game-changer for many companies doing business in the United Kingdom (U.K.). Generally speaking, the Bribery Act criminalizes the giving or taking of a bribe by individuals in the public or private sectors. It broadens corporate liability by making a company liable to criminal prosecution if anyone associated with it pays a bribe in connection with any aspect of its business.

It is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that covers the criminal law relating to bribery, amends and reforms the U.K. criminal law, and provides a modern legal framework to combat bribery in the U.K. and internationally. It repeals all previous statutory and common law provisions in relation to bribery.

The Bribery Act of 2010 covers general bribery offenses, bribery of foreign public officials, failure of commercial organizations to prevent bribery, prosecutions and penalties, and other provisions. One of its aims is to end “facilitating payments” paid to foreign government officials.  These routine payments, also known as “grease payments,” are unofficial payments made to public officials in order to secure or expedite the performance of a routine or necessary action. It is often something to which the organization is legally entitled, such as getting goods released from customs or gaining permission to open a new facility. Facilitating payments often give larger companies an advantage over smaller organizations.

U.S. companies need to sit up and take notice of this part of the Bribery Act as it is an area to which many of them are exposed. The U.S. government’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) has an exception for facilitating payments, but there is no corresponding exception under the Bribery Act.    

Due to the FCPA, it’s not surprising that among Fortune 500 companies, only 19 of those with public codes of conduct prohibit their employees from making so-called "grease payments" to foreign officials.

But thanks to the Bribery Act of 2010, that’s likely to change soon. What do evolving laws on corruption and bribery in the U.K. mean for U.S. firms who have operations or a presence in the U.K.? 

To avoid the risk of prosecution, they need to understand — and, most likely, change — their current facilitating payment practices. That includes any such payments they may be making either directly or indirectly through agencies and consultants. U.S. companies that currently permit the practice should put a plan in place now to drive it out of their business operations. 

That plan should include a 24-hour toll-free reporting hotline where employees can anonymously report potential incidents of fraud or ethical violations, including Bribery Act infractions. In addition to the Bribery Act, the recent U.S. Dodd-Frank Act and the establishment of the whistleblower “bounty” program, enforceable by the SEC, have made hotlines a best practice in risk mitigation strategies for ethical violations.

Planning Your Social Media Policy

No matter how traditional your business model, the rapid rise of social media in marketing has probably caused you to at least consider integrating it into your strategic initiatives.

But the process of adding social media to your company’s advertising and marketing program requires more than finding someone with the time and skill set to manage and nurture your brand in cyber space; it also demands a backbone of processes and standards that will keep your company’s name out of hot water in an environment without a delete button.

Businesses large and small have already found themselves the victims of social media backlash and, in turn, public relations nightmares. Gilbert Gottfried, the infamous voice of the Afflack spokes duck, took to Twitter with derogatory and insensitive statements the insurance provider did not share, and in turn sullied the name of his now former employer. A rookie associate at a big-name advertising agency running social media for Chrysler Group LLC mixed up his personal account with that of the client, and ended up insulting thousands of customers after cursing and insulting the company’s hometown. Technology will always fall to human error, but well derived protocols can help avoid the most damaging of mistakes.

As you plan your social media strategy, consider the following:

  • Who has access? Will it be a department’s responsibility, or a single employee? If more than one person can send messages through the chosen media, how will their time be shared and duplicate or contradictory postings be avoided? How will you handle sick days or vacations?
  • Who approves messages? Does a legal team or other higher authority need to see messages before they are released? In a quick-paced environment like Twitter, will those approvers have the time to review as needed?
  • Who responds to outreach from the community? If a client talks about a negative experience or a potential customer reaches out through social media for information, how will those messages be handled?
  • What’s your message? While social media began as a way for individuals to share their personal thoughts and opinions, as businesses make strides they, too, can promote their methodology, beliefs or personalities. Make sure you know what face you are going to share with the world.
  • How will you deal with competitors? Just like in traditional advertising, some companies choose to use social media as a place to insult their competition. How will you respond to such messages, if at all? How will you answer questions about your industry associates from potential clients?
  • How will you track progress? While sales teams can calculate accurate ROI numbers, social media managers have less concrete figures to hold onto. Determine what you are entering the social media world for -- branding, community building, customer service -- and what benchmarks you’d like to hit before you sign on and send your first message out.
  • What is off limits? Does your company deal with private or sensitive information? How will you ensure neither your employees nor your customers place this information in social media messages where it can be viewed by the general public?
Social media may seem like a scary and risky world for newcomers, but the reach and opportunity it offers businesses is undeniable. Treat your new campaign with the time and attention you would any other, and you will avoid the potholes of this new and ever expanding tool.

  Lighthouse Services, Inc. 1710 Walton Rd., Suite 204, Blue Bell, PA 19422 215.884.6150
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