4 lessons in workplace rights


Understand your workplace rights-whether you're a veterinary team member or manager-in four lessons from top employment attorneys.

Whether you're a team member or manager, you're on the same side of the fence—most of the time. But sometimes, team members cross a line. Or managers set boundaries that seem silly or arbitrary.

Beyond your practice policies, there are many state and local laws that rule your practice, and they're designed to set limits for team members and employers. Philippe Weiss is an attorney and managing director of Seyfarth Shaw at Work, the dedicated compliance services and training subsidiary for the law firm of Seyfarth Shaw LLP. He says when you talk to team members in a different town, region or state, recognize that the laws protecting you and your employer will vary, depending on where you work. So if you face a legal issue, it's important to consult an attorney in your area who can speak specifically to your circumstances and to the laws that govern your workplace.

Let's explore some of the surprising truths you may not know—and how you can maintain a positive, professional relationship and reduce the risk you'll cross wires with managers or coworkers. Consider these four truths:

1. Bosses don't want to fire you

Firing an employee is expensive and uncomfortable for employers, and many will avoid firing until you leave them no choice.

"Employers are constantly trying to figure out ways to avoid terminating employees," says Eric Wersching, a partner and attorney with the law firm of Ross Wersching and Wolcott LLP in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Firing someone disrupts the business, and it costs a lot of money to train new employees. In Wersching's home state of California, if a fired employee has accrued vacation the employer must pay for these unused days. Employees may also be eligible for unemployment insurance.

These simple steps will keep you on the right side of your boss most of the time:

> Arrive on time. Your alarm clock broke, your tire was flat and Fluffy had a hair ball on the carpet and you couldn't just leave it there all day, right? Running late occasionally happens to everyone, but when you're late every Tuesday, managers notice—and it may disrupt your practice's ability to serve clients. Who's going to greet Mrs. Smith at the front desk or take Rover's history before his exam?

>Take your lunch, take your breaks and leave on time. You have a right to break time and lunch time—just don't abuse it. Taking five extra minutes here, five extra minutes there and punching out early not only looks bad—it's stealing, and you can quickly lose your manager's trust.

>Do your job. So you don't like sweeping the reception area. You ran out of time and didn't call the clients you were supposed to follow up with and someone else can clean those cages tomorrow. When you skip tasks and leave the work for others, your coworkers and managers will notice.

>Make sure you use the employer's equipment, computers, vehicles or files only in an authorized manner. For example, Wersching says, in certain situations you can be fired for surfing the web when you're on the clock.

"Following these steps will prevent a lot of the reasons employees are fired," Wersching says. "Then that leaves only those subjective reasons."

The key, he says, is that employers don't fire for one minor issue—you're late once a week every week. Employers usually only fire when there are myriad problems. So start by following the rules, then try to define and meet the rest of your boss's expectations.

2. Your boss can monitor you

In many cases, your employers can monitor your behavior in the workplace. State laws may dictate the specific details of monitoring that's allowed, but your employer may be able to search your locker in your workplace, review the email you send from your practice email account and use video surveillance to monitor the practice. They most likely can't, however, record in places like changing rooms or restrooms.

3. Your practice's policies count

"When you cross the front door of a private employer, the Constitution, in many respects, stops right there, and the company's policies start," Weiss says. "And those policies are often stricter than the law."

This might seem strange, until you recognize your boss has to safeguard his or her business against unlawful behavior. So they may censor your speech and they may invade your privacy to protect the business.

Practice policies may also dictate some of your expectations for privacy in the workplace. For example, Weiss says your practice policy may dictate how many personal phone calls team members can make or whether—and for how long—you can use practice computers for personal use.

"That's why having good, clear policies is so important," Weiss says. "The first thing you want to do if you're an employee is read the policies. Because if something goes wrong, you want to be able to say that you followed the policies."

Weiss says your policy manual may also offer other valuable information, such as your reporting process when you're upset about an issue. It's very important, he says, to be able to demonstrate you've followed the practice's policies. It's the first and highest standard you want to meet.

Your job description also yields important information about the employer's expectations, and Weiss recommends reviewing it often to make sure you're meeting all of the requirements of the job. One approach, he says, is to use a job description as an audit list to make sure you're meeting your boss's expectations. Then, as you complete assigned tasks, use a simple query, such as, "Is there anything else you want me to do? Have I accomplished this task?"

The goal, he says, is to change your attitude about your boss from an "us vs. them" perspective to instead viewing your manager as a customer you're trying to satisfy—and maybe even delight—by making yourself indispensable. And managers, he says, should also be reviewing job descriptions to manage their employees and hold them accountable.

4. Teamwork may trump technical skills

Keep in mind, there are a number of skills managers expect that may not be listed in your job description. These include good communication with coworkers and customers and the ability to work together.

"Someone who's not working effectively with colleagues and customers is generally not a good performer," Weiss says. "A collaborative workforce is often as important as a profitable one."

In other words, high technical skills and following the exact letter of your job description may meet some requirements, but they also may fall short of your employer's expectations.

This also means you should embrace the review process. A good review can offer documentation of your good performance, and a review with improvement needed should offer you a road map to reach a place where you can satisfy your manager's expectations.

"You want to embrace all of the standards set for you and exceed those standards, and you want to have good communication with your manager so he or she acknowledges that you've met and exceeded those standards," Weiss says.

Tear down barriers

If you're a manager, your secret employer defense is effective compliance training. Just remember, Weiss says, that all discrimination, harassment and other workplace training programs aren't built the same. He recommends choosing programs that have already been reviewed by government agencies, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Justice, in the context of settlement and litigation consent decrees.

For employees, you're expected to work toward a safe, respectful and productive workplace, Weiss says. This may mean not focusing too hard on one specific conflict. Instead, remember you have many common interests with your coworkers and managers in the workplace. When everyone understands the boundaries, you'll enjoy a more productive workplace.

Portia Stewart is a freelance writer in Lenexa, Kan. Send questions to firstline@advanstar.com.

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