Is Your Business Honoring All Federally Protected Employee Rights?

Most personnel managers must work hard to keep up with all the federally guaranteed rights owed to employees and job applicants. And when small companies aren’t required to do the same, they should still try to offer all the legal rights referenced below since every office runs more smoothly when employees are treated with respect and granted as many rights as possible. Employers must also be sure they’re upholding all state employment laws that are often more favorable to employees.

Although many federal laws govern various employee rights, there are five specific ones that set the core standards involving discrimination — and provide fairness when addressing worker hours, wages and time off to handle urgent medical needs. All business supervisors and managers can benefit from reviewing the following brief summaries of Title VII, The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Basic employment standards established by Title VII

Businesses with 15 or more employees must abide by the full provisions of this law. While some might assume that employers with fewer than 15 employees can openly discriminate, lawyers frequently point out that other federal statutes (42 USC Sections 1981 and 1983) still protect ethnic and racial minorities against discrimination. These statutes govern the formation of contracts — and hiring employees always involves some type of oral or written contract.

Title VII strictly forbids all employers from discriminating against anyone regarding all

possible terms and conditions of employment. Therefore, employers cannot discriminate when handling any of the following activities.

  • Recruiting and hiring
  • Training and assigning work
  • Evaluating or measuring work performance
  • Disciplining
  • Promoting and transferring
  • Providing all promised benefits – including those owed after employment ends
  • Discharging

If your office has any questions about these standards, it’s best to contact your Houston employment law attorney to discuss your specific concerns in greater detail.

Employee rights guaranteed by the ADEA

While it may seem like a non-existent problem to younger workers, discrimination against older employees often incurs in many workplaces, especially when workers are nearing retirement when added benefits will likely vest. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act is designed to protect all employees age 40 and older when they work for an employer with at least 20 total employees.

All the basic employer activities listed above (regarding Title VII) must be applied fairly to older workers. Stated differently, the federal government forbids treating younger workers in a preferred manner over older workers who often have both strong skills and highly valuable years of experience.

Rights guaranteed under the ADA to the disabled

When a job applicant or hired employee can demonstrate his or her ability to handle all required job functions – without or without reasonable accommodations – discrimination is strictly forbidden. The ADA defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits any of a person’s major life functions or activities.

Reasonable accommodations should be offered to help the disabled person fully perform all required tasks, unless such adjustments would result in a fundamental alteration or change in meeting the employer’s program needs.

While the ADA has helped many workers, there’s still a need for greater societal change since many employers who can see a job applicant’s disabilities will privately opt to only hire those who don’t appear to have any cognitive or mobility issues.

Rights provided by the FLSA to all employees

The federal government has used the Fair Labor Standards Act to establish basic standards governing worker hours, minimum rates of pay and the handling of overtime hours. However, state law can offer more favorable rights, including a higher minimum wage.

Individual employers often choose to designate workers as either at-will employees who can be dismissed without cause or contract employees who must be provided with just reasons for their dismissal. The U. S. Department of Labor (DOL) states that if a company is a covered “enterprise,” and its workers are not exempt (or contract employees), the company must comply with all the FLSA provisions. Since determining what constitutes an “enterprise” isn’t always straightforward, you may need the help of your employment law attorney to interpret this for you. However, the DOL states that even if a company doesn’t qualify as a covered enterprise, all of its employees may still be protected by the FLSA provisions if their assigned tasks meet “interstate commerce” requirements.

Worker privileges available under the Family Medical Leave Act

This legislation applies to private employers with 50 or more employees working within 75 miles of the employer’s main worksite. To qualify for the extended leave provided under the FMLA, workers must have been employed by the company for at least twelve (12) months prior to making a request — and meet other specific criteria set forth under the law. Employees are supposed to be reinstated to their past jobs (or very similar ones) upon returning.

The FMLA is often used by a worker to care for a very ill, immediate family member or when the covered employee is personally battling a serious medical condition. Great care must be exercised when any worker states that s/he is not yet physically able to return once the full amount of leave allowed has been used (to avoid running afoul of provisions of state disability laws and the ADA.)

If you have any questions regarding how your office should apply any state or federal laws to employee issues, please don’t hesitate to call one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We can also provide you with legal advice as to how some of these laws may have been recently modified by new Texas statutes.

Ways to Avoid Defamation When Disciplining Employees

Every employer has the right to create a pleasant and productive workplace. Yet this goal can be elusive when a worker acts unethically or behaves poorly toward others. If the behavior was grossly unethical or offensive and the person was an “at-will” employee, you can usually fire him on the spot. However, some misconduct claims must be thoroughly investigated.

General principles to bear in mind when disciplining employees

If immediate firing isn’t appropriate, you must handle all investigatory matters in a private manner. You should also only inform those with a formal “need to know” regarding specific information you are learning. Always make sure to act in a non-discriminatory manner. You can never let anyone go in a way that violates their civil rights or unjustly defames them.

Here are some suggested steps your business should take while resolving problems with difficult employees.

Responsible ways to discipline workers

  1. Create a written policy that states how your office will interact with employees who are accused of wrongful behavior. While you should be consistent in taking certain steps, you must clearly state that your office always reserves the right to immediately fire at-will employees when circumstances justify such actions. When an exempt employee is involved, try to provide warnings and always listen to their side of the story. It’s a good idea to place this policy in an employee handbook and to reference it upon first hiring all employees – and during all periodic work evaluations;
  2. Investigate all accusations, especially when immediate firing isn’t necessary. Be sure to handle all interviews in a private setting, stressing the confidential nature of the process. If there is written or documented proof of wrongdoing, obtain copies of the materials;
  3. Create a separate investigation file for the accused employee. You should also create notes in the person’s regular personnel file – making sure only a small number of employees can review either folder. In very rare circumstances, it may be necessary to hire an outside group to handle the investigation for you. Your Houston employment law attorney can fully explain when hiring outside investigators may be necessary;
  4. Create a clear plan for each employee’s disciplinary investigation. Avoid making accusations or labeling someone as a “thief.” Let the person know that you are investigating the claims. When meeting with the individual, always take notes and have at least one other staff member present as a witness. You may want to ask the employee to sign a statement, indicating awareness of the investigation.  In order to get an employee to sign a form, you may need to note in it that his/her signature does not constitute any admission regarding wrongful behavior – only that the person knows certain claims are being investigated. Be sure to listen carefully to any defense claims the employee may offer – but do not let any meeting become confrontational. If tempers flare, note that you will reschedule the appointment for a later time;
  5. Do not publicize the investigation. Only share limited information about it with those who have a “need to know” regarding it;
  6. Once a decision is reached regarding discipline, advise the employee. Make sure your decision is based on fully objective and reasonable grounds – and note them in your files. Document what you’ve decided to do in the regular personnel file – and reference the separate investigative file where all detailed notes are kept. Do not allow anyone access to the main investigative file who doesn’t have a right to see it. Be sure to keep all investigative files for a lengthy time period in case future lawsuits are brought against your company;
  7. If you decide to terminate an employee, do so in an orderly fashion. Allow the person to gather together all personal possessions before leaving the building in a private fashion. If the fired employee was fired due to dishonesty – or any violent or inappropriate behavior – you may want security to escort the person off the premises. To protect the fired employee’s privacy concerns (and to avoid defamatory actions), you may want the exit to occur when few other employees are present;
  8. Do not share details about any firing with other employees. Unless there was documented criminal activity that all personnel may need to know about, you have a duty to maintain privacy regarding the exact reasons why you chose to fire an employee.

Always remember that you cannot discipline an employee for taking lawful advantage of any state or federal right. This can include taking time off under the Family Medical Leave Act after you’ve approved the temporary departure – or taking a military or pregnancy disability leave.

Additional behaviors to avoid when disciplining employees

  • Never jump to conclusions about any claim. Don’t allow yourself to be greatly swayed by reports made by one or two individuals. Be sure to speak with all key witnesses and interview the employee concerned – to hear his/her perspective on what happened;
  • Always be/remain reasonable and flexible. Don’t ever over-penalize an employee for a minor infraction. Also, if you’re having to fire a more senior, exempt employee, make sure you have fully documented all proven reasons (or “just cause”) as to why the employee must leave;
  • Seriously consider documenting verbal warnings. While this may not be necessary, it’s usually a wise move. One way you can document them is to send yourself an email, noting in general terms (using a computer at work) why you had to verbally discipline an employee on a specific date;
  • During regular employee evaluations, be sure to note any disciplinary actions taken and how they’ve been resolved. Always have the employee sign the evaluation, noting that the person recalls all that’s happened and how all situations have been resolved;
  • Avoid telling an employee after being disciplined that you’re sure the person is likely to have a bright, long future with the company. A court might later view this type of language as reasonable proof that you were creating a new employment contract, one providing some type of guaranteed or continuing employment – as opposed to the at-will status the employee once had; and
  • Don’t punish workers for trying to improve working conditions or wages during breaks or at other times when “off the clock.” Rights like these are normally protected under the federal National Labor Relations Act.

If you’re concerned about how to handle any employee discipline or firing issue, please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We can provide legal advice based on the specific circumstances that you relate to us — and help you decide when you may need to hire outside investigators to handle a specific claim. We can also draft professional language for describing your employee discipline policy in your employment handbook.

Be Careful When Creating a Company Policy on Moonlighting

When addressing employee management issues like moonlighting, it’s often best to seek out a middle ground. If you’ll first establish clear work standards that fully protect your company’s intellectual property and ongoing research and development efforts, you should be able to accommodate those who can responsibly handle a second job outside their regular work hours.

Perhaps the best way to create a balanced moonlighting policy is to first review your main concerns about allowing employees to do any outside work. You should then try to objectively embrace your employees’ reasons for wanting to take on another job. Although you do have greater freedom to dictate when exempt workers put in their hours, that’s not always the case when interacting with at-will employees who are paid hourly.

Here’s a look at the competing interests involved when trying to design a moonlighting policy for your unique workplace. That information is followed by some general guidelines that you’ll want to review with your Houston employment law attorney. Employees do have certain privacy rights about how they conduct their lives outside of work and those must be respected.

Legitimate reasons why employers often want to limit moonlighting

  • To protect the company’s intellectual property. No employer wants to worry about employees knowingly (or accidentally) sharing confidential, proprietary information with another employer – or using such information while starting their own companies. Non-disclosure agreements are crucial to protecting these types of rights;
  • To maintain control over employee schedules for valid staffing purposes. Many companies require employee flexibility with work schedules in order to cover the ongoing, often unpredictable nature of their work volume. For example, customer “help” or call centers often experience times of peak calling. However, these fluctuations can change from week to week – or even day to day. People hired to work in these environments can be legitimately required to forfeit or greatly limit outside work – if those unique requirements were clearly stated in writing prior to their hiring;
  • A desire to have employees provide the company with their very best efforts. When employees take on “second” jobs – they’ll often be tempted to put in too many total work hours each week. It’s completely legitimate to want every worker to show up on time each day, fully rested and able to adequately focus on their assigned tasks;
  • Safety concerns. Moonlighting frequently causes many people to lose sleep. When they show up to your workplace greatly fatigued, they can pose a serious safety threat to their own health – and that of their coworkers;
  • Loyalty and commitment. While a moonlighting employee can provide you with these desirable attribues – you have every right to expect them to demonstrate respect for your company while interacting with others.

Although these aren’t the only reasons you may want to carefully limit employee moonlighting – they do touch upon common concerns. Keep in mind that it’s your right to carefully monitor the quality of work of your moonlighting employees to be sure it doesn’t start to decline.

Some of the valid reasons many workers want to do some moonlighting

  • Additional money to support themselves and other family members. Regardless of what you’re paying each worker, everyone periodically encounters unexpected medical bills and other crises that require extra income;
  • A desire to realize their own entrepreneurial dreams. Few people can afford to simply quit their “day jobs” while trying to launch new businesses. If employees pursue this type of goal while using their own resources outside of regular work hours, there may be few issues. However, if their companies will cause them to compete for clients with your business, restrictions are fully justified;
  • An interest in taking on paid union work to improve conditions for themselves and others in their industry. Employers must tread lightly when trying to restrict such activities. While company loyalty is a legitimate concern, this isn’t necessarily violated if the workers are openly addressing key safety and health issues that affect all employees.

These are just a few of the many reasons why some workers are strongly motivated to take on moonlighting jobs.

General guidelines for drafting a moonlighting policy

  • Companies should rarely try to completely forbid moonlighting. However, as your Houston employment law attorney will tell you, it’s best to inform all “new hires” if their jobs may require sudden changes in their weekly schedules or limited overtime hours on short notice. Whenever possible, try to remain flexible with workers – or your best and brightest ones may leave so they can pursue moonlighting and other privileges elsewhere;
  • Decide if you need to specifically address this topic in your employee handbook. If you don’t wish to create a “moonlighting” policy, you can ask your attorney to provide you with hiring contracts (and/or) non-disclosure agreements. These will clearly explain to all employees that they’re legally forbidden to share any company trade secrets, research and development data – or other proprietary information – with outside parties without first obtaining express, written permission from your company. It’s also wise to have all employees sign non-compete contracts with your company before they start to work;
  • Consider requiring employees to obtain your permission before taking on “second” jobs.  Should you decide that you want to expressly forbid an employee from taking on a specific “moonlighting” job, always immediately speak with your attorney – to be sure you’re within your legal rights to do so. You’ll need to carefully document all your reasons to protect yourself from any future litigation;
  • Try to be accommodating when an employee indicates that s/he will not be competing with your company in any way. After all, it’s entirely possible that you may one day become a client of your employee’s fledgling new company. Of course, you should still periodically touch base with all moonlighting employees to be sure no conflicts of interest have developed since they started their second jobs;
  • Use periodic job evaluations to your advantage. During these, be sure supervisors ask questions that can help determine if the employee’s outside job is starting to compromise his/her ability to provide you with top-quality work.

Please feel free to schedule an appointment with one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can help you draft the various contracts you need to protect your company’s proprietary interests. We can also help guide you as you create (or update) your current employee handbook on this and other topics.

10 Ways to Minimize Liability When Providing Employee References

Although it was far simpler twenty years ago to provide references for most departing and former employees, it now requires careful planning. Employers must take deliberate steps to protect themselves against possible lawsuits brought by disgruntled former employees who may claim that they’ve been harmed by defamatory or negative job references.

All companies should now consider requesting (as a hiring condition) that each new employee sign a release form granting permission for the company to provide future job references without threat of liability. As noted below, that paperwork can then be supplemented by new, signed and dated authorization forms for each future reference requested.

Before sharing ten ways your company can reduce its potential liability when providing job references, this article will first briefly review common legal arguments advanced by former employees when they sometimes sue claiming a reference harmed their future job prospects.

Types of arguments past employees advance when alleging harm due to a job reference

Keep in mind that defamation does not have to produce actual harm – it’s enough that the negative reference was published or communicated to a third party and might reflect poorly on a past employee’s good name or overall reputation. Courts will normally review all the surrounding circumstances to determine whether a reference was truly damaging.

  • Intentional infliction of emotional distress. An angry former employee may claim that the person who issued the reference used unjustified and inflammatory language. While this isn’t asserted often, it’s a reminder to create a clear and distinct policy for how all references should be handled – free of unsubstantiated opinions or undocumented gossip. For example, it’s always wise to avoid alleging that a former employee demonstrated clear signs of struggling with some form of substance abuse on the job;
  • Invasion of privacy. Your company must avoid publicizing private information about an employee. For example, if you investigated why an employee was late to work on several occasions, you should never publicly disclose that the person was repeatedly jailed overnight due to arrests for drunk driving;
  • Interference with contract. A business should never knowingly provide false or misleading information about a former employee that could reasonably bias a prospective employer against hiring the person. Be as honest as possible and rely on neutral, documented information in the employee’s personnel file whenever possible;
  • Title VII discrimination. You must never provide a negative reference because a past employee was a member of a protected class. So, do not claim you fired someone because of their disability or alleged problems due to their gender. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids this type of discriminatory behavior.

Ten practices that can help you provide safe and proper references

  1. Always obtain employee consent. You should require a written request from all past employees asking you to provide a reference to a specifically named individual. This is very important since references should only be provided to proper parties;
  2. Designate only one or two company officials to handle all employee references. Centralizing this operation can help your company avoid releasing poorly drafted forms or letters of reference. It’s usually best to forbid all supervisors and other employees from providing their own references. You may want to create your own simple form for providing all references;
  3. Maintain accurate personnel files for all employees. Furthermore, be sure to conduct regular employee evaluations – and have employees sign the bottom of all written evaluations. This information should provide the basis for future letters of reference. It must be free of any biased or highly negative comments whenever possible;
  4. Avoid providing references over the phone. This is important since phone requests can be placed by nearly anyone. You must always be sure you’re only providing information to legitimate parties. Secure, written communications are always best. And never provide a reference until after you’ve received a new, written authorization form signed and dated by the former employee. (It should state that your company will not be held liable for providing the requested reference.) You can email or fax this form to the past employee when you receive a new request;
  5. Only provide information to proper parties. Be aware that private investigators and others may contact you and just pretend to be potential employers. Your company could be sued if you release a reference to someone who is not a prospective employer;
  6. Try to stick to the scope of the requested information. Don’t volunteer opinions or offer unsubstantiated data. Depending on your firm’s established policy for providing references – just stick to basic facts. (However, be sure to review the last paragraph of this article about providing references for past employees who exhibited violent workplace behavior – made serious threats – or sexually harassed other employees);
  7. Keep detailed records regarding all reference requests. If you fail to keep all written data involved with these requests and copies of the information your company provided, you may have a very difficult time mounting an effective defense if you’re sued for defamation – or on the other grounds named above – by a former employee;
  8. Be careful and provide about the same amount of information about all employees. While it may be tempting to provide lengthy praise for some former employees, it’s best to only comment on factors that may apply to all employees. If you’re going to provide negative information, be sure to first check with your Houston employment law attorney to be certain you’re not being too harsh – or revealing too much;
  9. Try to avoid requiring or compelling self-publication. If you fired someone because they were recently convicted of a serious crime or are no longer qualified to maintain a certain level of a security clearance, be careful what reason you give for firing that person. Otherwise, you may be forcing that person to later “self-publish” negative facts about themselves. Ask your lawyer if there are other valid legal grounds you can state as the basis for the firing of an employee when controversial issues were also involved. This can cause complex problems — yet honesty is always crucial; and
  10. Only share objective information. Never tell a prospective employer about any workplace gossip tied to the past employee’s personal problems. You should only be sharing data that can be easily verified by reviewing the employee’s personnel file.

While all these tips should help you reduce your chances of being sued based on a claim of defamation (or the other grounds stated at the beginning of this article), you must remain aware that providing too little information about a past employee can potentially render you liable in a lawsuit brought by the new employer. More facts about that problem are provided below.

Can you be sued for negligent referral, fraud or misrepresentation due to your reference?

Those types of lawsuits are becoming more common. If you had knowledge that a past employee behaved violently in your workplace, made serious verbal or physical threats against others – or sexually harassed one or more workers, you might need to disclose some of that information. This is a topic you must discuss in much greater detail with your Houston employment law attorney since Texas law may or may not provide you with adequate protection from liability.

If you’re uncertain how to provide a reference for a past or departing employee, please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We can provide you with sound legal advice regarding such topics. Our firm can also help you create employee release and authorization forms. Should you be sued by a former employee, we’ll be available to defend you through every stage of any proceeding.

Should My New Texas Business Be Formed as an “S” Corp or an LLC?

While deciding which business structure will best serve your needs, always consider several key factors. For example, look at how many employees you plan on hiring and how much time you want to spend managing the company. You should also make sure you’re fully protecting your personal assets against future lawsuits and not incurring any excess taxes.

One excellent way to choose the best structure for your company is to meet with your Houston business law attorney. The two of you can discuss all that you might gain (or lose) by starting your company as either an LLC (limited liability company) or an “S” corporation.

Before noting some of the basic steps involved with forming an LLC and an “S” corporation, here’s a brief overview of the unique offerings and drawbacks of both structures.

What are some chief advantages and drawbacks of starting an LLC?

Depending on the size of your business and the types of goods or services you’re selling, you may prefer an LLC for the following reasons.

  • It offers a less formal structure. An “LLC” is also often easier to manage than an “S” corporation, especially when you have few employees. And you’ll never need to have any board meetings to tackle problems tied to issuing stock certificates;
  • You can readily change this business structure (once all proper paperwork is filed). If

you’re running an “S’ corporation, you’ll first have to arrange a formal board meeting before trying to change the business structure);

  • All members of an “LLC” do not have to be permanent residents or U. S. citizens;
  • You can more easily divide up who handles most of the daily work – while allowing others to just be investors. You can also simply divide up the profits based on each person’s initial investment and daily work contributions;
  • Disadvantages of an “LLC” compared to an “S” corporation. These can include having all the company profits subjected to self-employment taxes. Your growth may be limited since your business cannot issue any stock shares. Always ask your Houston business law attorney about any other potential disadvantages that may apply to your unique situation.

Why do some entrepreneurs prefer forming “S” corporations – despite the limitations?

  • Formality is viewed more favorably by some. Outside businesses often prefer interacting with companies that employ a more formal corporate structure;
  • You can often use this structure to avoid double taxation of income;
  • Profits are passed on to the shareholders (by way of their paid dividends). Therefore, the company does not have to pay taxes on those profits;
  • Possible drawbacks. All shareholders must be permanent residents or U.S. citizens. There can be no more than 100 shareholders. Added state filing fees may apply. Also, the IRS

tends to monitor “S” corporations very closely since some people try to improperly avoid certain taxes by wrongfully using this business structure.

What are some basic issues that must be addressed while forming an “LLC” in Texas?

  • Membership. You’ll need to decide how many owners or members you’ll have and if they’ll share all the managerial duties;
  • Naming your business. You must choose a unique name to avoid confusion with already existing companies;
  • File all required forms. You’ll need to start with a certificate of formation (Form 205) that must be filed with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office;
  • Registered agent. You must name a registered agent who can accept the service of process on behalf of your company;
  • You’ll need to create an operating agreement. It’s usually best to ask your Houston business law attorney to draft this document for you after you’ve

discussed the precise nature of your new business;

  • Fully satisfy all state and federal paperwork requirements;
  • Obtain all required state and local business licenses that may be required for your industry.

(Note: Some of these same steps may also be required while forming an “S” corporation below, regardless of whether they’re listed).

Here’s a brief review of key issues involved in starting an “S” corporation in Texas

  • The drafting of Articles of Incorporation. These must be filed with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office;
  • Stock certificates must be issued to all initial shareholders;
  • All applicable business licenses and certificates must be obtained in a timely manner;
  • You’ll need to file Form 2553 with the Internal Revenue Service. (Your lawyer can first check to be sure you meet all the qualifying terms for creating an “S” corporation).

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb lawyers so we can answer your questions about each of these business structures. We can also help you draft all the documents you’ll need to transact business throughout the year.

Should You Always Enforce Covenants Not to Compete?

Covenants not to compete are binding contracts that are designed to protect companies against exiting employees unlawfully sharing different types of proprietary information, “trade secrets” and intellectual property with their new employers and others and engaging in post-employment activities that can be detrimental to the company they left.

Before discussing whether it’s wise to develop an ironclad attitude toward enforcing these covenants, it’s helpful to review the basic reasons why these documents are usually drafted and what standards courts consider when deciding whether they should be upheld.

Companies must protect specific types of information

Whether your business sells cutting-edge security software or sends out consultants to advise clients in mostly rural areas, your employees often learn highly detailed information about how you help your clients. If you were to always let key employees leave and immediately put that proprietary information and knowledge to work for a competitor, your business might quickly lose its competitive edge and market dominance.

Therefore, many companies regularly require employees to sign noncompete agreements to prevent them from using what they learn while employed for a limited time post-employment. Should former employees violate these agreements, they (and their new employers) can often be sued in court.

Common types of proprietary interests you’ll usually want to protect

  • Trade secrets. Perhaps your company has invented a manufacturing process that should not be shared with any competitors. It’s also possible that you’ve designed a highly effective training program for your employees that makes them uniquely effective at handling their work. You clearly don’t want them to share those training methods with others;
  • Client databases. You’ll want to prevent all departing employees from reviewing any past buying practices, requests and needs of your clients;
  • Other highly confidential materials. These could include almost anything – perhaps you’ve implemented a specialized marketing plan that’s helped your business grow several times over during recent years.

These examples should help remind you of the many proprietary types of information you must protect by requiring your exiting employees to sign covenants not to compete.

Within such covenants, you’ll need to address various topics that may include the following ones.

  • A specific time period. Any time period must be reasonable, normally 1-3 years;
  • A description of the types activities the employee cannot engage in post-employment. You can list specific industries, customers or businesses the departing employee should not contact for a new employer;
  • A specific geographical area where the departing employee cannot work. You can state a certain region where the employee who left cannot compete with you for a set time period.

When evaluating the reasonableness of covenants not to compete, courts look to see if they are over-broad or too restrictive. While businesses have a right to protect certain information or “legitimate business interests”, they aren’t allowed to unfairly prevent a departing employee from pursuing most forms of gainful employment.

Should you always enforce your contracts containing noncompete clauses?

Although the most obvious response is to say you’ll always strictly enforce them, it’s important to recognize certain factors before suing someone for not honoring a noncompete covenant.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can help you draft any contracts you need containing covenants not to compete. We can that someone is currently asking you to sign – or assist you in enforcing or defending a lawsuit.

Key Ways to Protect Your Business Against Cybersecurity Threats

After the massive data breach involving Marriott’s Starwood hotel brands was reported in 2018, businesses of all sizes began wondering again if anyone can remain safe against hackers. About 500 million guests who stayed at Starwood properties (including Westin, Sheraton, W Hotels, and the St. Regis) had their names, phone numbers, email addresses, birth dates, encrypted credit card data and other information stolen.

What’s shocked people even more is that this breach covered a four-year time period extending from 2014 through September 2018. It’s hard to believe that any company’s computer networks could be so severely compromised over such a long period of time before being discovered.

Companies of all sizes who haven’t already done so must immediately take proactive steps to reduce their chances of having their customer data and other proprietary information suddenly stolen or compromised.

What one past study revealed about cybersecurity threats – that keep increasing annually

  • Close to half of the businesses surveyed consider themselves “very dependent” on the Internet for their daily business operations;
  • Over one-third of those interviewed said that it would be very damaging for their companies to be without Internet access for 48 hours in a row;
  • Small business employees rely on using the Internet for 75% to 100% of their daily work.

A much more recent study revealed that 58% of the victims of malware (cybersecurity) attacks are small businesses. Furthermore, cyber attacks wound up costing most targeted small companies about $2,235,000. Clearly, no one should avoid addressing this crucial issue.

Fortunately, various cybersecurity experts and business professionals are sharing their ideas about some of the best ways to prevent new attacks – as opposed to just responding to them.

You must determine your current level of risk to an attack before creating a protection plan

Even if you already have a highly qualified IT professional on your payroll, it’s often best to hire an outside cybersecurity consultant to come in and objectively assess your various levels of risk to a hacking attack. A “white-hat hacker” (someone on your side) can attempt to evaluate your code vulnerabilities and network and system weaknesses.

This expert can also evaluate how appropriately your employees are responding to suspicious emails that could easily introduce malware into your computer networks and databases. Give serious thought to having this type of outside expert audit your risk level at least once every two years – if not annually.

Keep in mind that it’s often useful to assign a risk level of low, medium or high to each system that might be compromised by a data breach. This can help you as you design a cybersecurity protection plan that prioritizes various risks.

Regularly review the FINRA cybersecurity checklist if you’re a smaller firm or business

This source is designed to help companies handle the following tasks.

  • Identify and evaluate all current cybersecurity threats to better protect all business assets against outside intrusions (or in-house security lapses);
  • Readily determine when your company software or databases have been hacked or compromised;
  • Decide (in advance) how to quickly counter attacks or threats as soon as they’re detected. It’s always wise to create several options based on the type of information or software that may be under attack;
  • Develop a plan with any in-house IT professionals and your outside cybersecurity consultant for readily recovering any company assets that are lost, stolen or otherwise compromised.

Create an employee training program that will help protect your systems and networks

Your employees must take the ongoing threat of a cyberattack very seriously. Staff members who fail to follow all in-house cybersecurity protocol often make it easier for outside hackers to gain entry. You might consider requiring a two-factor authentication password for those seeking to gain access to some of your company’s most valuable or vulnerable accounts.

Before providing this training, you must decide which parts of your computer network, systems and databases should remain off limits to various levels of employees.

It’s also important to let your employees know if you’ll be regularly monitoring their usage of all company computers. (It’s best to obtain written permission for this practice at the time you initially hire all employees). Inform everyone that each employee’s access to information will probably be restricted — based on their normal daily need to access certain information or to complete their assigned tasks.

Give very serious thought to limiting the outside Internet websites that employees can visit while at work and indicate what types of data downloads from outside sources are forbidden. Including these restrictions in your company’s formal training and cybersecurity protocol can help decrease the chances of anyone downloading threatening malware or viruses.

Always ask everyone to encrypt their attempts to access various company databases and accounts. You should also encrypt access to all email accounts. Finally, be sure all employees know the safest ways to file and store data, so it can be fully protected from hackers, while remaining easy to access again when needed.

Develop a comprehensive plan for offboarding employees (those leaving your company)

Regardless of whether someone is being fired or has accepted a new job elsewhere, you need to have a systematic way of reclaiming company property when workers leave. You must also revoke their access to all business networks. Be sure all exiting employees return all company laptops, ID badges, company credit cards, mobile devices and other equipment.

Finally, delete the email addresses of exiting employees as soon as they leave. Someone should also change the company passwords they regularly used that were not encrypted. And always try to make sure every employee has signed an appropriate NDAs (non-disclosure agreements).

Although not intended to be comprehensive, we hope this list of suggestions will help your company gain greater protection against future cybersecurity attacks.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys about how various Texas and federal cybersecurity laws and regulations may impact your company. We can also provide you with a non-disclosure agreement for exiting employees to sign and review the terms and legal limitations of any cybersecurity insurance policy that you may be looking at in hopes of limiting your business liability for future data breaches.

What Should Be Included in Your Employee Handbook?

Both large and small companies can benefit from providing their workers with employee handbooks. These texts help employers answer key questions and clearly document that the same standards and rules govern their interactions with everyone. After all, no one wants to work for an employer who grants special privileges or benefits to some workers and not to others.

Employee handbooks also let employers set forth all their behavioral standards and procedural rules in a manner that can help them limit future liabilities — should anyone ever try to sue them for wrongful termination or acting in a discriminatory manner.

Before reviewing some crucial sections that many businesses like to include in their employee manuals, here’s a quick look at some of the topics that most workers want to see addressed.

Employees often search for information about key standards and office procedures

  • Be sure to outline your behavioral standards, attendance rules, office attire and the level of respect required for all relationships. Most employees are eager to learn how you view tardiness and what you consider acceptable clothing. Likewise, new workers want to learn about your conduct standards — and if your office has a “zero tolerance” policy toward all forms of sexual harassment and discrimination;
  • Always provide clear information about pay grades, qualifications for receiving medical insurance, pay periods and all forms of employee benefits. Workers usually start to relax more once they’re told how often they’ll be paid and the exact size of their payroll deductions. Likewise, it’s important to tell employees when (and if) they may be considered qualified for healthcare insurance;
  • Always state how often employee evaluations are conducted and the best ways workers can try to position themselves for future raises and promotions;
  • Be sure to note any individual or family leave policy provisions that your company honors. Always have your Houston employment law attorney read over this information for you, to be sure it fully complies with all current federal, state and local laws; and
  • Describe your most crucial emergency and safety procedures. Always tell your workers how they should evacuate from the office during extreme weather events, fires and even possible shooting incidents. Each new worker should be shown the proper way to exit the building on their first day on the job – and be shown where fire extinguishers and first aid kits are kept.

While these are just a small sampling of the general topics most employees want to see covered, they should help remind you of many other important subjects that you should cover in your employee handbooks.

The following list is compromised of some of the most commonly used sections in employee handbooks.

Key headings or sections most employers include in their employee handbooks

  • A “Preface” section. You may want to provide a general history of the company here, along with information about the founding members of the business. You can also note who currently heads up various office branches. The company’s key values and goals for the future are also often stated here. If you like, you can also add a brief congratulations to each new employee for being hired;
  • Material explaining all basic pay arrangements, promotions and current employee benefits. You can describe any 401k or stock options in this section, as well as the various types of retirement benefits. Overtime pay policies should also be covered;
  • A section that describes “at-will” employment versus jobs offered under contract;
  • Standards for employee behavior. Be sure to address the need for regular attendance; rules governing personal cell phone use during the work day – and any restrictions on using work computers for private purposes. (Ask your attorney if you need to obtain written permission from all employees to monitor their computer usage);
  • Formal leave policies. In this section, you’ll need to list all paid office holidays, how employees should handle vacation and sick leave, personal days off, family medical leave and time off to honor current military service commitments;
  • Employee termination policies. Be sure to note that these can vary, depending on; if an employee is considered an “at-will” worker who can be dismissed rather informally or if the person was hired under a formal contract.
  • Confidentiality policies. Be sure to clearly state what information and trade secrets the company considers confidential and trade secret. Ideally, all employees would signed a confidentiality and non-disclosure agreement.

Should you wish to review a large number of sections that different employers have included in their employee handbooks, consider reading 53 Key Sections of an Employee Handbook (and Other Helpful Tips).”

The Texas Workforce Commission also has a number of policies and a form of Employee Handbook available for free at https://twc.texas.gov/news/efte/table_of_contents-az.html. However, choosing the right sections for any employee handbook often requires a keen understanding of employment law and many complex human resources issues.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys for help in drafting your new or updated employee handbook. We can provide you with the proper legal terminology required to meet your company’s unique needs.

Why You Need to Create a Business Succession Plan NOW

Why You Need to Create a Business Succession Plan Now

Even when all owners of a company plan to work until the very end of their lives, there’s still a need for a viable business succession plan. After all, anyone can become totally or partially disabled as a result of a serious car accident or die of a deadly disease on almost any day.

When business owners hide from this reality, they often create havoc for all surviving partners or family members. Instead, it’s better to move forward at a calmer time to carefully address these types of possible future events.

Your Houston business law and estate planning attorney can help you decide on the best way to either pass your business on to others — or liquidate all the assets to meet your own needs and those of your survivors.

General questions you must answer yourself about any succession plan

  • What is the current market value of this business and all its assets?
  • Who is the best possible buyer? Do I prefer to sell the business to a co-owner, family member, employee or a third party?
  • Am I more likely to sell the business sooner rather than later? Am I interested in selling the company now due to health, retirement or other reasons?
  • Is this business tied to its current location? If not, would it be reasonably simple for the business to be moved elsewhere and successfully run by someone there?
  • What preferences do I have about how the sale should be financed? Am I willing to personally finance the loan? If so, what type of collateral should I require?
  • Which business advisors should I consult with while securing all the required contracts and other paperwork? Besides business and tax lawyers, do the specific assets of my company require me to consult with real estate agents, insurance and business brokers, bankers and financial advisors?

It’s often wise to start this process by locating and reviewing all your current business contracts and deeds. Next, give some thought to your company’s most productive and respected employees. Then, carefully determine the current market value of every business asset. Finally, schedule confidential, preliminary talks with any co-owners, family members who work for you, other key employees and perhaps one or two other potential buyers of your company.

Once these initial tasks have been handled – or while you’re completing them – it’s wise to meet with your Houston business law attorney.

Advantages and disadvantages of selling to different parties

Unless you’re the sole owner of the company and simply want to liquidate all the business assets and not sell (or transfer) the company to others, you must carefully evaluate each potential buyer and decide which one is best qualified to run the company in your absence.

  1. One or more family members. In most instances, it’s usually best to sell to only one family member, preferably one who is already involved in the business and respected by your employees. Ask your attorney about the best ways to prevent future challenges to any decision you make. One approach might involve drafting a buy-sell agreement that clearly states who is going to be running the company — and asks all others who currently work there (or own shares) — to sell their shares to the person you’ve named as your successor. This approach often helps minimize future family disagreements.

When selling a business to a family member, you may want to execute a self-canceling installment note (SCIN). Your attorney can explain why that may be useful;

  1. A key employee who is highly knowledgeable and well liked by other workers. The most common drawback to selling to a key employee is that the person may not be able to give you a large down payment in cash. Be prepared to execute a buy-sell agreement that clearly lists all the valuable collateral for any loan you may be willing to finance. You can also suggest that this employee try to obtain an SBA (Small Business Administration) or bank acquisition loan that will provide you with up to 70% or more of the purchase price upfront;
  2. You can sell your shares to your co-owners. Be sure to clearly indicate the sale’s price and all purchase terms;
  3. An outside third-party or competitor. Be very careful when selling to this type of buyer if you’re financially depending on the person to keep running the company. Due diligence is critical when evaluating every potential buyer.

Since this article only provides a broad overview of the types of issues involved when drafting a business succession plan, you’ll need to obtain competent legal help to handle this entire process. Should you already have some type of succession plan, we can help you decide if it’s time to update it.

All our Murray Lobb attorneys have the necessary experience to help you create a business succession plan that’s specifically tailored to your company’s unique needs. We look forward to helping you draft all the contracts and other documents you’ll need while selling your business.

 

Key Drafting Points for a Texas Employment Contract

Although Texas employers hire many workers on an “at-will” basis to make it easier to dismiss them (for reasons that doesn’t violate governing statutes), they also still provide employment contracts to others. After all, a well-drafted employment contract helps employers clearly establish what’s expected of their employees and makes it easier to protect proprietary information when workers leave.

If your company prefers to negotiate employment contracts with highly skilled employees, try to first meet with a Houston employment law attorney so that all of your most important needs and interests can be protected during the hiring process. And always be sure to communicate carefully with prospective employees since it’s easy to accidentally convey contract terms you may not have intended.

Before reviewing some of the important terms that should be included in most Texas employment contracts, it’s wise to note how some employment contract terms can become binding when set forth outside of contracts.

Ways employers may convey certain employment terms to job applicants or new hires 

Always carefully review the following ways that your company may be granting certain rights you didn’t intend to include in your formal employment contacts.

  • Through verbal agreements. Only allow a limited number of interviewers and other hiring staff to discuss key employment terms that may or may not be set forth in writing;
  • Statements made in offer letters. Always reread these before sending them out to make sure they do not contradict what’s in your written employment contract;
  • Provisions set forth in your employee handbook. (You should periodically ask your attorneys to review this material – to be sure it’s still current regarding new laws and recent court decisions);
  • All emails and faxes sent to prospective employees or new hires;
  • Statements made on workplace job notice boards.

While this list isn’t intended to be comprehensive, it should remind you that all written materials and formal conversations with applicants and new hires must be conducted carefully.

Here’s a look at some the terms you must properly address in your contracts.

Written employment contracts should always address these key terms and conditions

  • All core duties and responsibilities of the employee. It’s often wise to also note when the employee’s performance will be evaluated. For example, after the first 30 to 60 days – and then at other stated intervals;
  • Pay rate. This should be carefully discussed while making the initial offer and then documented in the employment contract;
  • All employee benefits, such as healthcare and stock options, should be listed and at least briefly explained;
  • Work locations and hours. If rotating shifts are required or if you strictly forbid working from home – you should set forth all these relevant restrictions;
  • Clear information indicating how employee disciplinary actions will normally be handled;
  • Reimbursement of approved expenses. If you do not cover any major expenses, you must state this very clearly;
  • How employee terminations are handled under different circumstances. This is a good place to possibly offer some type of severance pay if provided with two weeks’ notice (or some other time period you may prefer). You can then state that no general severance packages will be offered to those who fail to provide advance notice of their departure;
  • Dispute resolution terms. If you and the employee later have a dispute regarding the employment terms set forth in the contract, state whether you require the use of a specific form of dispute resolution — before any litigation can be pursued;
  • A reasonable covenant not to compete when employees are leaving. You should also include some type of clear statement that the departing employee must not disclose any trade secrets to others upon leaving.
  • A confidentially agreement. All employees who have any access to any company trade secrets, proprietary information or information the company deems to be of a sensitive or confidential nature must sign a confidentiality agreement.

If any of these terms are especially important to your company, give serious thought to asking all employees to not only sign their employment contracts – but to also initial certain paragraphs – clearly indicating that they were asked if they had special concerns or questions about those topics.

Please get in touch with one of our Murray Lobb attorneys once you’re ready to draft any employment contracts for new employees. We are also available to help you modify any of these contracts when various employment conditions change.