A while back, I had a good discussion with a colleague on a topic with no real firm answers.
No, it wasn’t on whether the Yankees are better franchise than the Red Sox. The answer to that is unequivocally yes. (Sorry, Sox fans.)
Rather: When is a employee-related issue a legal one? Or alternatively, when can human resources handle the issue on it’s own?
What comes to mind at first is the old Justice Potter Stewart quote of, “I know it when I see it” but that seems unsatisfying.
For some smaller employers, the answer may lean more heavily towards “legal” in part because there may not be an in-house human resources professional to call on.
But on the flip side, there are some other employers that might rely heavily (perhaps overly so) on their HR contacts to handle matters, trying to avoid unnecessary legal expenses.
What I’ve concluded is what I’ve started with — there are no real answers to the question.
But I can outline a few (non-exclusive) times when a lawyer should probably get involved.
- You get a letter from a lawyer threatening legal action on behalf of an employee or, in the case of a non-compete, from a former employer. Pretty self-evident; lawyer = legal issue. I’m going to not even dwell on the obvious: an actual lawsuit being filed means an attorney ought to be contacted.
- You get a notice from a state or federal agency investigating wage/hour laws, anti-discrimination laws, workplace safety issues, or labor union-related issued. Anything from the DOL, CHRO, EEOC, OSHA, or NLRB (to name a few) has the potential to be a big deal. Things you say there can be used against you too. The earlier the better.
- But unemployment compensation claims may not always rise to that level. Some employers handle unemployment claims and appeals internally. For those situations, it depends on the complexity of the situation.
- You have to conduct an investigation into a workplace issue, such as sexual harassment, AND you may want that investigation to be privileged and confidential. Again, HR may be able to conduct a whole host of minor investigations but there are going to be some that involve sensitive issues, or perhaps raise company-wide concerns. Bring counsel involved and let them help to manage the investigation.
- You have a complex issue that doesn’t have a clear legal answer. It’s pretty well-settled now that employers need to engage in interactive discussions with an employee regarding reasonable accommodations that they may need. Qualified HR can handle those discussions. But suppose the employee is injured on job, is out on workers’ compensation, has exhausted FMLA time and needs additional time off — what then?
But I’m interested hearing from other lawyers or human resources personnel. When is an issue a legal one and when is HR perfectly capable of addressing it? Leave your best tips in the comments below.