Steps to Take Before Searching an Employee’s Work Area or Property

When expensive company property goes missing or an employee reports that a new wallet was stolen from his desk while he briefly left his office, you will want to immediately search for the missing item. However, you can quickly encounter legal problems if your employees have not already consented to such workplace searches.

The best way to remedy this situation is to update your current employee handbook, adding a policy addressing this topic. If you do not have a handbook, it would be wise to draft one now, carefully including a provision about searches, including a statement that they will only be conducted when valid reasons make them necessary. (You should always conduct searches with at least one other supervisor with you – to help document that it was handled properly).

What follows is a brief review of search standards that may apply to different types of employees, the most common items employers often look for during searches – and the importance of never inappropriately touching any employee during a workplace search. You must also avoid detaining an employee in a manner that could be considered “false imprisonment.”

Search standards can vary, based on the employment status of the workers involved

The Texas Work Commission addresses this topic on its website, in an article titled: “Searches at Work – Legal Issues to Consider.”

           1. Legal standards that apply to state and federal government employees. Federal and state constitutional provisions prohibit subjecting these workers to any “unreasonable searches and seizures.” This prohibition is set forth in the Fourth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, made applicable to the states through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (under the incorporation doctrine). The nature of this type of violation is discussed further below.

            2.  Standards that apply to private company employees. While the strict standards, statutes and governing case law may sound less strict for these workers, private businesses must still conduct their searches cautiously – or become vulnerable to lawsuits based on one or more of the following claims.

  • Assault and battery. This would likely involve the searched employee claiming that you wrongfully – without obtaining prior consent (or in keeping with known company policy – touched him/her wrongfully.
  • False imprisonment. You detained the worker in a manner that exceeded your rights under the circumstances.
  • Wrongful termination. You cannot fire someone when you do not find the contraband or stolen items you thought you might find. Be sure to have a clear policy in your employment handbook that outlines how many warnings an employee must be given prior to being let go. (However, if the worker is an “at-will” employee, you can terminate that person at any time, without having to state a reason or explain your actions).
  • Negligent or intentional infliction of emotional distress. Always handle search matters in a private setting – where you are not putting the employee’s reputation on the line or subjecting the person to embarrassment in front of others.  When conducting an actual search, always ask all workers in the area to take a work break and wait 15 minutes before returning to their cubicles, offices or nearby work areas.

It is also wise when conducting a search (or disciplining an employee), to have another management official present who can vouch for how everything was handled – prior to writing up a report documenting the events. You may also want to ask the employee to voluntarily sign and date the statement you write up, indicating what took place. Be sure to note that either you acted under the authority of a known workplace search policy – or that you obtained the employee’s advance permission before conducting the search.

What items are employers often looking for during a locker or work area search?

  1. Stolen property. This may belong to the company or to another employee.
  2. Drugs or alcohol
  3. Any type of dangerous weapon, including certain knives. Be sure to address all the types of weapons that employees can never bring to work in your employee handbook.

What might constitute an unreasonable search and seizure?

  1. Searching an employee’s work area or locker without attempting to provide advance notice. However, if this is a right you reserved for the company in the employee handbook, advance notice may not be required. Be sure to note that even if an employee secures his/her locker with a personal lock, you must still be given access to the contents.
  2. Conducting the search in front of the employee’s co-workers. This should always be avoided, even if the other employees must be asked to take a work break or go gather in a nearby conference room until you invite them to return.
  3. Physically touching an employee or yelling while interacting with the person. Be polite and treat the person as you would want to be treated. After all, it may be up to a court to later determine if your company owes the employee any monetary damages.

Can you ever, in any permissible way – physically search a worker’s body/clothing?

This should always be avoided at all costs. However, you can – with another management employee present in a private office – ask the employee to voluntarily empty his or her pockets. You can also ask the worker to empty out the contents of a briefcase, purse or wallet. If the person refuses to do as you ask – and you have no stated company policy in place about searches, you cannot insist that the employee do as you ask.

If you fear some serious theft has occurred, you should inform the employee of your concerns and contact the police. Should the police visit your office, you can allow them to conduct the physical search – if they determine that one is immediately necessary.

While this overview is not intended to be comprehensive, it should provide you with a basic understanding of why all workplace searches must be handled with great care.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys to discuss this specific employment law problem – or any other — at your convenience. We are also available to help you with your general business and estate planning needs. And we can readily draft the contracts and documents that you regularly need.

Properly Handling Background Record Checks of Potential Employees

All companies must proceed cautiously while trying to create safe, productive and pleasant work environments. The best approach is to develop standard procedures for running background checks and investigations for all applicants who will be handling similar tasks — without regard to any discriminatory traits or characteristics.

First and foremost, you must obtain each job applicant’s written permission to run checks on their job and educational records, criminal background history and financial credit status. Should any of the information you obtain make you no longer wish to consider a specific job applicant, you must inform that person about each report’s negative findings – since all potential employees have the right to refute and correct such data.

Always be sure to also treat all applicants with equal respect and remind them that you’re simply trying to learn all you can about your top applicants. And be sure to state in writing that providing false information can cause individuals to be immediately dropped from further consideration – or be fired in the future when such misinformation is discovered.

Here’s additional information about the types of errors that can appear in background checks, how you might allow job candidates to respond to negative findings — and tips on exercising special caution when sensitive data appears on either sex offender registries or terror watch lists.

Types of negative information & errors that may be uncovered during background checks

Hopefully, most of your searches will just reveal that your applicants have provided their correct names, full address histories, all job information for recent years, accurate Social Security numbers and other basic data. However, chances are that at least some of your potential employees will need to explain about one or more of the following findings.

  • Past arrests or conviction records. Always pay close attention to the types of behavior or crimes involved, when the events occurred and how (if true) that history might affect your work environment. If you still wish to hire a person with some type of negative arrest or conviction, remember that you have a legal duty to create a safe work environment for all your employees. Also, bear in mind that future claims of negligent hiring could prove very costly to your company.
  • Fraudulent or grossly misleading information about the applicant’s academic background or work history. As noted above, make sure that all your application forms clearly indicate that providing false information on such forms (or on a resume) can be immediate grounds for dismissing an applicant from further consideration. Should you believe that any applicant may have simply made a typographical or innocent error on the forms, always allow the person to provide corrected information. Just be sure to respond to the discovery of such false information in the same manner for every applicant;
  • Misleading or inaccurate driving record information. If you’re hiring someone to deliver packages or goods for you – or drive others around on your company’s behalf, you better make sure they have an excellent driving record.
  • A very poor credit score, a bankruptcy or other signs of major financial problems. Always be sensitive and careful when asking applicants to explain this type of information;
  • The person’s name turns up on a sex offender registry or a terrorist watch list. Given the number of people who are burdened with very common names, always reveal what you’ve learned to the individual in a calm manner, preferably with at least one other human resources staff member present. If you still want to hire a person whose name was on one of these lists, always first speak with your Houston employment law attorney.

Your lawyer can tell you how you should go about carefully determining a person’s correct identity and if it’s too risky to hire someone. It may even be necessary to contact the Department of Homeland Security if the person is listed on a terrorist watch list. (Do keep in mind that even the government knows that it can be very time-consuming to remove a name wrongfully added to a terrorist watch list);

It’s crucial to maintain a standard of fairness that applies to all applicants

Be sure your company’s hiring policies provide specific time limits on when applicants must provide you with corrected information after background checks turn up negative or disturbing information. Always apply that same standard to all applicants. If someone needs more time, you should only allow a one-time extension that applies equally to others.

How long must you keep all job application forms and background check information?

The EEOC (Equal Opportunity Commission), the Department of Labor and the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) each provide slightly different guidelines on how long certain records should be kept. Overall, it’s a good idea to keep a copy of all application materials and background information for about two years. Of course, if any job applicant or employee files a lawsuit against your company, that person’s records should be kept until all legal proceedings and appeals have come to an end.

Make sure all employee records are stored in a restricted area where only one or two senior human resource officials have access to them. Once it’s time to destroy the records, it’s wise to carefully shred, burn or pulverize the data so that the material can no longer be read.

Of course, some employers keep all resumes and job application forms in case they later have problems with an employee — or come across information that indicates that the background check failed to disclose fraudulent claims were contained in those documents. Some firms just scan all such data into secure databases.

Since credit background checks are governed by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), be sure you understand the terms of that legislation and how it impacts your specific workplace. Also, always keep in mind that the State of Texas also has laws and regulations that can impact how your company handles background checks and employee records. It’s always wise to periodically touch base with your lawyer to find out if any of these laws have recently changed.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can provide you with the legal guidance you may need while hiring employees or simply running your business. We can also provide you with any contracts you may need — or review the contents of your current employee 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.

Think Twice Before Hiring Close Family Members & Friends

Creating a positive work environment always requires careful planning. Everyone must feel equally valued to do their best work. While it can be tempting to hire a close family member or friend who’s highly qualified, you must carefully consider how well the new person might fit in with your current employees.

Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to minimize potential problems. However, before making this type of choice, you should always confer with your business partners and hiring manager about the types of risks set forth below.

Unexpected employee jealousies & tensions can lower workplace morale

  • Current employees may fear they’ll never be given a fair chance again to compete for choice assignments and promotions once the new person comes on board;
  • Many or most of your conversations with this new individual may cause others to fear that their competing opinions will cease to matter or be respected;
  • Employee morale may suffer if your family member or friend is granted any special privileges regarding work hours, early promotions or salary;
  • Your new hire must be prepared to receive the “cold shoulder” from others. He or she must be prepared to avoid reacting in an angry or defensive manner;
  • Regular chains of command should be honored so that even your friend or family member must remain open to job performance feedback from other employees.

Ways you can try to minimize problems and help your family member or friend succeed

  • Openly discuss this hiring possibility with any equal partners in the business, as well as your hiring manager. If any of these people have serious misgivings, always consider hiring a well-qualified newcomer instead. If you’re the company’s only higher-level boss, talk about this hiring idea with another close family member or friend who will confidentially let you know if you’re being reasonably objective;
  • Plan on introducing the new person in a staff meeting, clearly noting who he or she will work with on a regular basis. Also, note that the new person is eager to obtain helpful advice from all those already onboard;
  • Have a private meeting before hiring the person, explaining the fact that the two of you must exercise strong boundaries at work each day. Topics only important to the two of you concerning family members or other friends should only be discussed during non-work hours to minimize conflicts;
  • Require your family member or close friend to sign a binding work contract if all others had to sign one when hired. If no written contracts are being used, make sure this person knows that they’ve been hired for a set trial period, especially if this holds true for all other employees. Clearly explain how you’ll need to end the work relationship if too many special privileges are requested — or sub-standard work is turned in;
  • Provide early and regular feedback to your family member or regarding their work. Let this person know that you’ll probably need to let the regular supervisor also offer constructive criticism;
  • Do not tolerate any special requests that go beyond what you grant to other employees. This type of activity will undermine your good relationships with other staff members.
  • Be realistically prepared to fire this person– sooner rather than later – if others are having to do extra work since your family member or friend isn’t working hard enough.

Fortunately, carefully chosen family members and friends will try hard to succeed if you insist they treat everyone else with respect.  Just remember to remain open to what other employees may tell you about the quality of the new person’s work – and do all you can to help your friend or family member stay open to suggestions for improvement.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys regarding any questions you may have about both routine and complicated employee management issues. We’ve had the opportunity to provide useful legal guidance to businesses of all sizes for many years now.

Hurricane Harvey: Avoiding Fraudulent Repair Contractors

Fortunately, many first responders and volunteers nobly rushed out to help residents of Houston and surrounding areas after this catastrophic hurricane unleashed torrential rainfall and flooding. However, too many people lost their lives during the lengthy onslaught and far more suffered extensive property damage. As survivors try to reclaim their lives, they must exercise great caution when hiring repair contractors so they can properly repair and rebuild their homes.

Based on Texas Attorney General website information, and on our country’s recent storm history, we now know that many dishonest “scam artists” tend to show up (often from out of town) right after natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey. They eagerly try to convince desperate homeowners that they alone know how to repair their homes quickly and for far less money than their competitors.

Our general advice to you is to do your homework and carefully check out each contractor’s business reputation before signing on any dotted line. As we stated in our Labor Day email, we will review any contracts from contractors who want to perform work on your property.  We will do this free of charge limited to contracts that are presented to you by the contractor. Please call us for assistance.

Basic Considerations When Planning to Repair Your Home

To help you obtain the quality repairs you need, we’ve summarized some key steps below that can help you hire a competent repair contractor. Specific warnings have also been added so you can spot some of the many “red flags” indicating that someone either isn’t properly skilled or licensed as required under Texas law. Hopefully, you can avoid being swept up in what “60 Minutes” has called “The Storm after the Storm” when disreputable contractors sweep in to make a fast buck while you’re still grieving various losses.

Key Steps to Take While Getting Your Home Repaired

1. Only hire a contractor who has a fixed, local business address (or one nearby) and who offers fair terms of service. You need to hire someone who has lengthy experience doing the type of work you require and who can provide you with local references. This person must be willing to accept partial payments as the job progresses, while regularly paying all subcontractors for their labor and materials as the project moves forward;

2. Search for a contractor who has worked for someone you know and quotes reasonable fees. Whenever possible, only hire someone who has worked for a family member, close friend or business associate. If you cannot find someone that way, then at least call the Houston Better Business Bureau to check on the company’s reputation. Don’t let anyone pressure you into quickly signing a contract so you won’t lose a special price break.

3. Take the time to solicit several bids before choosing the best one (which may not be the lowest). Those who bid too low are often hoping to trap you into later adding other fees that aren’t properly covered in your repair contract.

4. Check online websites to see if you can learn more about each contractor. When you contact the Houston Better Business Bureau, ask if there are any recent negative or unresolved complaints on file. Remember, no listing at all is not necessarily a positive sign. You might also consider visiting such websites as HomeAdvisor.com and the Angie’s List website. The latter one now allows everyone access to most general information for free. Also check the name of the owner(s) of the company. Many times, unscrupulous contractors form new companies to hide their real reputation. Check with the Secretary of State in the state in which the company is incorporated and get the names of individuals shown as officers and directors;

5. Get every contract term in writing – never agree to a mere oral contract for this type of work. Also, avoid signing a contract that’s missing key terms, due dates, or estimated amounts for materials. You can be sure that if you let any lines remain blank, they’ll often be filled in later with terms that greatly benefit the contractor at your expense. Also, keep in mind that if the main contractor fails to pay all subcontractors, they can place liens on your home until you pay them. If the contractor disappears, most courts will hold you liable for the unpaid wages and materials;

6. Find out if the contractor is fully licensed to do the type of work you want, based on Texas law. If you’re unfamiliar with the laws in this area, call your Houston business law attorney here at Murray Lobb for timely advice. Also, make sure the contractor will be securing all required permits before the two of you sign a contract and let the work begin. Keep in mind that it can be a a negative “red flag” if the company says it’s your responsibility to obtain the permits;

7. Inquire about the type of insurance the contractor carries. The company should normally be carrying worker’s compensation, personal liability, and property damage coverage. Don’t just take the company’s word – ask to see proof (insurance certificates) clearly indicating that all such policies are currently in force;

8. Request the inclusion in your contract of a “sign-off checklist” tied to all payments. This will help you hold on to your property and hopefully avoid the placement of any liens upon it because your general contractor left the area, without paying all subcontractors.

9. Obtain your own financing if you can’t pay with a check or credit card. Never sign up for financing through a lender suggested by the contractor. It’s never wise to go through a lender who is a close associate of your contractor since critical terms may be hidden from you. If you can’t pay “cash” – and many people cannot – carefully review the interest rates and fees various banks or credit unions are offering before hiring a contractor

10. Move forward cautiously if you still have a mortgage on your home. Be sure to contact the bank holding the mortgage and obtain its written approval of the contractor you are hiring. (It’s always possible that the bank may already have a short list of reputable contractors that you can choose from when making repairs).

The attorneys here at Murray | Lobb, PLLC would like to help you sort through this daunting task by offering to review any contracts from contractors who want to perform work on your house. 

Please remember that our firm is here to help you as you try to rebuild your home and your life. (If you’re in need of immediate financial or other emergency assistance due to the hurricane, please visit this federal government website.) We look forward to helping you when you call.