How to Carefully Address Alcoholism in the Workplace

Whenever a new employee starts a job, personnel managers privately hope they’ve adequately screened the person. Hiring workers has become a much more complex task now that so many qualified professionals move freely between long-term positions, the “gig economy” and periods of self-employment.

Finding productive employees is also hard because many people who suffer from alcoholism or “alcohol use disorders” have learned various ways to try and hide their problems.

What exactly is alcoholism or “alcohol use disorder?”

The Mayo Clinic website states that people who experience “repeated significant stress and problems functioning” in their daily life due to drinking, usually suffer from alcohol use disorder.

Those attempting to cope with this daily disorder also struggle with increased drinking in hopes of obtaining the same “high” that helps them escape their emotional pain. Over time, many alcoholics find it hard to even quit thinking about alcohol. Still others stay busy with “binge drinking” spells — or the physical and psychological problems that occur during withdrawal.

Some larger companies have employee assistance programs that can readily offer counseling and other services to workers struggling with addictions and other psychological problems. However, there will always be many workers who remain in denial about their critical drinking problems — and small businesses who simply cannot afford to provide a wide array of special services to their workers.

What follows is a brief review of American alcohol abuse statistics, a list of signs that workers may have drinking problems – and a look at how employers can try to reach out and help employees with apparent alcohol use disorders.

What statistics tell us about alcohol abuse in America

  • Well over 12 million adults struggle with alcoholism. In fact, one 2018 study revealed that 14.4 million adults (at least 18 years of age or older) were battling alcohol use disorder (AUD). Approximately 9.2 million of these individuals were men and 4.1 percent were women.
  • Heavy use and binge drinking are also common. This same 2018 study noted that when adults age 18 or older were asked about their drinking during the prior month, 6.6 percent of them said they were heavy drinkers. And 26.45 percent of them admitted to binge drinking during the past 30 days.
  • Every year, about 88,000 people die of alcohol-related causes.

As these statistics indicate, every business surely has more than a few problem drinkers. And experts estimate that lost productively due to alcoholism can cost American employers between $33 billion and $68 billion each year.

Common signs that employees may have drinking problems affecting their work

  • Repeated, unexplained absences from work
  • Ongoing tardiness
  • Frequent use of sick leave
  • Too many absences occurring the day after payday – or a pattern of taking too many three-day weekends
  • Falling asleep on the job
  • Moody behavior and difficulty getting along with other employees
  • Bloodshot eyes, an unsteady gait – and the faint smell of alcohol
  • Claims of too many sudden “emergencies” during relatively short timeframes
  • A steady stream of assignments finished late
  • Incomplete assignments or clear signs of inadequate effort
  • Ongoing problems with meeting assigned sales or other quotas

How should employers address one or more of these problem behaviors?

  1. You will need to schedule a private meeting with the employee. Prior to this meeting, you should review all recent employee work evaluations and privately talk with the person’s supervisor (who may also want to attend the meeting). Be sure to take notes. Also, make it clear that you’ll be checking back with the employee at a later (specific) date to see if their work and/or attendance record is improving.
  2. If your company has an EAP (employee assistance program), meet with your personal representative of that program prior to the meeting referenced above. It may be necessary to schedule some type of intervention with the employee, after that person is given ample notice of the meeting. This event (which should probably be managed by your EAP contact) can include the person’s workplace supervisor, spouse, clergy or other family members. All who attend must indicate that they’re simply trying to help the person improve their health and keep their job.
  3. In some cases, you are likely to meet up with an employee’s denial. If so, you must still make a referral to your EAP — or remind the person to obtain this type of outside help on his or her own if your company doesn’t provide EAP resources. You must also clearly state that if one or two more unexplained absences (or poor work performance reports) are received, the employee will be terminated. Be sure to have at least one other company official present during such meetings and keep detailed, confidential notes.
  4. You must be prepared to tell an employee who appears to be intoxicated at work to stop working immediately. This is especially true if the person is driving a work vehicle or handling potentially dangerous equipment. You may also have want them to take an evidentiary breath testing (EBT) device.

Employers should avoid taking the following steps when alcoholism may be present

  • Covering up for an employee with a drinking problem
  • Loaning money to the person with alcoholism
  • Helping the tardy employee make up assignments later, instead of disciplining him/her
  • Requiring co-workers to complete the apparent alcoholic’s assigned work
  • Allow a spouse to call in absences for the employee

Hopefully, the problem drinker will respond to your outreach efforts, agree to a temporary term of leave and then follow-up care. If all goes well, this person will then be able to carry a normal workload again. While this is always a very difficult problem to handle, it’s important to remember that those who do recover from an alcohol abuse disorder may one day become your most loyal employees, grateful that you gave them a chance to fully address their problems.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys when you need help deciding how to respond to this type of employment law issue. Our office also remains available to help you draft any contracts or other documents you may need while running your business.

Drafting Valid Texas Non-Compete Agreements

Although Texas courts will uphold valid non-compete agreements, they expect these documents to contain clear and reasonable terms. In addition, Texas employers can only execute these types of ancillary agreements when they’re directly related to a main document like a valid employment contract.

Companies that ask workers to sign these agreements must also make sure they’re offering proper “consideration” to each employee. Simply providing someone with continued employment will not be considered adequate. The employer must be offering such valid “consideration” as a definite plan to share highly valuable “trade secrets” or unique, proprietary information with each employee required to sign a non-compete agreement.

Basic terminology regarding these agreements

Covenants not to compete are also sometimes referred to as non-compete agreements or “non-solicit” agreements. That latter term refers to the departing employee’s promise not to solicit any of the former employer’s customers until after a set time period noted in the agreement has ended.

In some cases, the shared information might just be limited to the the names and addresses of the employer’s current customers. Of course, the validity of all terms set forth in a non-compete agreement may one day be subject to a court’s interpretation.

What follows is a closer look at the terms and definitions governing Texas non-compete agreements. They’re set forth in Section 15.50 (and following) of the Texas Business and Commerce Code. Stated succinctly, non-compete agreements must set forth reasonable time limitations, detail the scope of activities to be restrained – and describe the geographical area to be covered. This article concludes with a discussion of how you and your Houston employment law attorney should respond if you learn that a former employee has violated his/her covenant not to compete.

A reasonable limitation on the geographical area you seek to control

Stated simply, your agreement will probably be viewed as valid by a court if it only restricts the former employee from competing against you (or working for a competitor of yours) within the same basic geographical area where s/he worked while still employed by you. While a broader area might be considered legitimate, you might have to justify that to a court one day, based on unique aspects of your business industry or other similar issues.

Courts often frown upon these types of covenants when they’re overly broad. The law favors free trade and competition unless a greater employer right (or threat to employer interests) can be clearly established.

A reasonable time period is referenced for restricting the former employee’s activities

Although there don’t seem to be any legal experts willing to name a specific time period you should choose, the consensus appears to be that you shouldn’t make this part of the covenant unduly burdensome.

Speaking in very general terms, if you name a time period much longer than one or two years, (directly dependent on the nature of your company’s work), your lawyer may have to justify that longer time period in court. After all, people are entitled to move on with their lives, regardless of whether you fired them — or they simply wanted to do something new in their work lives.

The scope of the activities being restricted must be fair and reasonable

You normally cannot completely restrict a departing employee’s best options for finding new work. For example, assume an employee has worked exclusively in the computer field for all his or her life, up until leaving your firm. A court would probably consider it overly burdensome if your non-compete agreement forbids that person from accepting or soliciting all types of work in that very broad field.

However, if that employee provided you with highly specific work in a unique sub-field of computer science, you might be able place a restriction on that type of work for a relatively short period of time. Reasonableness is crucial.

What can you do if you discover a former employee is violating a non-compete agreement?

      A. When the questionable behavior does not raise an urgent concern

If that former employee signed what you believe is an enforceable covenant not to compete, you can ask your Houston employment law attorney to take one or more actions on your behalf. However, if the need to stop the past employee from further infringing your rights is not immediate, your lawyer can start by sending the former employee a letter, reminding him/her of the agreement and of your belief that s/he is likely violating it and must stop doing so.

Should you again learn that the former employee is still violating your agreement, you can also contact that individual’s employer and state your concerns, noting the earlier letter sent by your attorney.  If the infringing activity continues, you can file a lawsuit. (Employers are often tipped off about such questionable behavior by current, loyal customers who’ve been recently contacted by the former employee.)

     B. When the wrongful behavior could cause immediate damage to your company

If you believe that you’re about to suffer irreparable harm due to the former employee’s current use of your company’s “trade secrets” or contact with your customers, your lawyer can ask a court to issue an injunction. If granted, this should put an immediate stop to the alleged, illegal activities.

Should the judge decide that the current threat posed to your company is highly significant, s/he can even grant a temporary restraining order (TRO) that prohibits the former employee from doing anything further that could violate the agreement until a first hearing can be held. Anyone who ignores a TRO (or violates one) can be treated as being in contempt of court. That person can then be punished with a fine, some form of imprisonment – or even possibly both.

Conclusion

Always remember that Texas courts demand that all terms in your non-compete agreement be reasonable. Former employees do have a right to move on with their lives and find new opportunities to support themselves that do not directly interfere with your business or its current viability.

Our Murray Lobb attorneys welcome requests for legal advice about covenants not to compete and other employment law issues. We’re also fully equipped to address most corporate and business law matters, as well as your estate planning needs. Please feel free to contact us if you ever need us to draft any contracts or other documents required by your business.

Key Estate Planning Advice for the Terminally Ill

Nearly everyone expects to live to their full life expectancy. However, as we grow older, we begin to see many friends and loved ones die early due to cancer, heart disease or various tragic, unexpected events. For this reason, every adult should create an estate plan and remain ready to modify it once a terminal illness or tragedy suddenly unfolds.

After all, our family members, friends and favorite charities depend on us to maximize the gifts we make through our Wills, trusts and other testamentary devices.

To get ready for this process, you should first make a list of all your current assets (and their values) and then schedule an appointment with your Houston estate planning attorney. When you meet, your lawyer can explain the choices you’ll need to make that can simplify the process, while also decreasing the tax burdens on your heirs and other beneficiaries.

Here’s a look at some of the ways that terminally ill people – or those aware that the end of life is fast approaching – can adjust their estate plans to maximize the final gifts they can give to all those they wish to help.

Specific steps for the terminally ill to consider while updating or creating an estate plan

  • Decide if you should set up a revocable trust. This can help greatly reduce all the tasks the appointed executor must handle — and can lessen the chances that any of your estate will have to pass through the probate process.
  • If you’re a parent or grandparent, consider creating a private annuity. This will allow you to transfer substantial assets to your loved ones while retaining a lifetime annuity. If you do not live to your expected lifetime expectancy, as set forth in actuarial tables maintained by the IRS, most (or all) of your assets may not be taxed.
  • Make sure you’ve fully used up all your current annual exclusions. As many taxpayers know, every American has the right to give $12,000 a year to multiple donees. And if your spouse agrees to all the gifts you’d like to make during the current tax year, you could give away a total of $288,000 — tax free. It’s also possible that other “leveraging” techniques involving family partnerships could greatly increase that amount.
  • Check to see if all your assets are titled properly (so your beneficiaries will reap the best tax benefits). Your lawyer can explain how this can help you obtain the full lifetime exemption from estate taxes. In some cases, it may be best if many assets (including the highly appreciated ones) are held in the name of the terminally ill spouse. When this is allowed, it can help minimize all the capital gain taxes that might otherwise accrue when various assets are sold after the terminally ill person passes away.
  • Review all the assets held in your 401k and other retirement accounts. This can also help you recall what you’ve already bequeathed to various beneficiaries. Be sure to bring all the updated information about these accounts to the meeting.
  • Create an update list of all named beneficiaries and their current addresses. Everyone will appreciate being able to receive your gifts as quickly as possible.
  • Consider placing a certain amount of cash in your checking or savings account so that your executor can easily pay your final expenses using that money.

If you’re the terminally ill patient, seriously consider asking your spouse, executor, other trusted family member or close friend to take part in this meeting with your attorney. This can help you avoid forgetting important assets and beneficiaries. It can also remind you to tell this trusted person where you currently keep all your real estate deeds, the passbooks for all your investment and saving accounts — and all your online account usernames and passwords.

While the information above isn’t intended to be fully comprehensive, it should provide you with an accurate idea of the types of matters you and your lawyer can handle during your upcoming appointment.

Finally, please be aware that your attorney may be able to arrange an initial, teleconferencing appointment if that will work best due to your serious illness. Finalized paperwork can then be signed within a short timeframe.

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Please feel free to contact your Murray Lobb attorneys for help with any of your estate planning or general business needs. We try to remain available to provide you with prompt legal advice and the various contracts and other documents that help keep your business running.

Liquidated Damages in Texas Contracts

When a party to a contract breaches, the fundamental goal of the law is to place the non-breaching party in the same position it would have been had there been no breach.  This does not always mean the non-breaching party gets what he sought under the contract. More often, the non-breaching party is awarded money (damages) for adequate compensation.

Penalty or Damage Provisions?

In some instances, the parties to a contract might wish to insert a provision in the contract which specifies the damages the non-breaching party may be entitled to recover.  These provisions are called liquidated damage provisions.  However, liquidated damage provisions can be found to be unenforceable, when the breaching party seeks to avoid the provision on the ground that it is a penalty.  Typically, a penalty is one which greatly exceeds amount of damages actually sustained by the non-breaching party.  Court will examine whether the actual damages incurred were much less than the liquidated damages imposed, measured at the time of the breach.

A liquidated damage provision is not a penalty when it reasonably estimates the harm that would result from a breach.  But a provision not designed to be a penalty can nevertheless operate as one.  The universal rule that damages for breach of contract are limited to just compensation for the loss or damage actually sustained. Accordingly, courts carefully review liquidated damages provisions to ensure that they adhere to the principle of just compensation.  A damages provision that violates the rule of just compensation, however, and functions as a penalty, is unenforceable. Liquidated damages must not be punitive, neither in design nor operation.

Courts will enforce liquidated damage provisions when:

  1. “the harm caused by the breach is incapable or difficult of estimation,” and;
  1. “the amount of liquidated damages called for is a reasonable forecast of just compensation.”   In applying the first prong, courts examine the circumstances at the time the agreement is made. The party seeking liquidated damages bears the burden of showing that the provision, as drafted, accounts for these two considerations.

A properly designed liquidated damages provision, however, may still operate as a penalty due to unanticipated events arising during the life of a contract. Courts must also examine whether “the actual damages incurred were much less” than the liquidated damages imposed, measured at the time of the breach.  When a contract’s damages estimate proves inaccurate, and a significant difference exists between actual and liquidated damages, a court must not enforce the provision. When an “unbridgeable discrepancy” exists between “liquidated damages provisions as written and the unfortunate reality in application,” the provisions are not enforceable.

Enforcing Liquidated Damage Provisions

To be enforceable the liquidated damage provision, at the time the agreement was made, must meet a two-part test:

  1. The harm that would result from a breach must be difficult to estimate, and;
  2. The liquidated damages provision must reasonably forecast just compensation. Parties to a contract containing a liquidated damage provision are expected to negotiate a reasonable, not perfect, forecast of just compensation in the event of breach.  A forecast that is inordinate when compared with actual damages will not prevail to a challenge when there is proof of a large variance between the actual damages and those sought under the liquidated damage provision.

A recital in the contract proclaiming that a liquidated damage provision is not a penalty will not save a provision that operates as one. Careful thought must be applied in determining a reasonable forecast of damages that would be sustained in the event of a breach.  If damages, at the time of contracting are capable of calculation or can be fairly estimated, the provision cannot meet the first prong of the test.

Please feel welcome to reach out to our Murray-Lobb Attorneys if you have any further concerns or questions regarding a contract breach or liquidated damage provisions.

What Employers Should Cover in Their Sexual Harassment Policies

Providing employees with a carefully drafted sexual harassment policy communicates respect and helps everyone stay focused while doing their best work. To make sure you include the most critical legal passages, it’s always best to meet with your lawyer — who can also help you address any special needs of your workforce.

Here’s a brief overview of the most crucial components of this type of policy. As you read over the list, jot down any questions that come to mind since they may help you have a more productive meeting with your Houston employment law attorney.

Key information that should be included in most sexual harassment policies

  • A general statement about why you’ve created the policy. It’s important to note that your company recognizes that every employee has the right to work in a safe environment. No employee should ever be coerced into developing a sexual relationship in order to keep a job. Likewise, sexually suggestive or offensive behavior should never be inflicted on anyone;
  • A detailed definition of sexual harassment – preferably one that also provides specific examples of the different types of verbal and non-verbal behaviors that are covered. Clearly indicate that sexual harassment always involves unwelcome behavior that tends to offend, intimidate or upset others. It can even include something as simple as posting sexually suggestive cartoons and other materials in the workplace. Also note that your company will not tolerate any sexually harassing behavior between parties of the same sex;
  • A statement that your policy also provides protection against third-party harassment. Your company’s customers, clients, contractors and others will never be allowed to sexually harass your employees;
  • There must be a detailed description of your complaint procedures. Employees must be told that you’ll respond to all complaints in a private, confidential manner – and will conduct all necessary investigations in as professional manner as possible. It’s also important to note that you’ll try to have at least two senior staff members trained (and available) to handle these complaints – one woman and one man. Workers should be extended the courtesy of being able report their complaints to someone of their own gender.

Offer your employees both an informal way of processing complaints – and a more formal approach. After all, some employees aren’t interested in filing a legal claim against the alleged abuser – they’re mainly interested in stopping the abuse and returning to work (perhaps in a new department). However, you must provide clear information to each complaining party that s/he has the right to file a more formal complaint with the EEOC. Finally, you must also state that your company will not tolerate any type of retaliation against the alleged victim – regardless of the position held by the party who has been accused of the sexually inappropriate behavior;

  • Provide a commitment that your company will try to expedite the complaint process as much as possible, recognizing the needs of all involved. However, you should also explain the different types of interviews that may need to be conducted so that all parties have the chance to be fully heard. Employees must also be told that if the complaint involves unusually aggressive behavior – or if multiple complaints have been recently received regarding the same alleged offender, it may be necessary to turn over part or all of the investigation to an outside, objective party hired for that specific purpose;
  • Name some of the specific disciplinary steps that will be taken if the company’s investigation finds that harassment has occurred.
  1. The offending party will receive a written or verbal reprimand
  2. A negative performance evaluation will be placed in the wrongdoer’s personnel file
  3. There may be a reduction in wages
  4. A demotion or transfer may be imposed on the wrongdoer. In some instances, the victim may be allowed to obtain a transfer;
  5. The offending party may be forced to accept an immediate suspension — or just be fired. (Make sure all these possible forms of discipline are noted in your company’s employee handbook).

Be sure your company has a policy of requiring every new employee – regardless of rank – to undergo sexual harassment training as part of their initial company orientation. Furthermore, all employees should be required to take an annual refresher course on this topic. (You may want to include a statement about this training requirement in your sexual harassment policy).

When designing or choosing a sexual harassment training program for your employees, always make sure it includes a “question and answer” segment since employees often need to ask questions to be sure they fully understand the different behaviors that co-workers may consider offensive.

Our lawyers always welcome inquiries from both new and established clients seeking advice on employment law matters. We’re also fully prepared to draft the many contracts you may need to run your business as your clients obtain the many goods and services you currently offer. Feel free to contact us so we can schedule an appointment at your convenience.

Inter Vivos Gifts: Transferring Property or Wealth While You’re Still Alive

Stated simply, inter vivos gifts are those given by a donor to a beneficiary during the donor’s lifetime. Many families and individuals enjoy passing property or wealth on to loved ones, friends or charities in this manner. The term “inter vivos” is a Latin one that can be translated as “between living people.”

One of the chief reasons a donor makes this kind of gift is to help a beneficiary avoid paying unnecessary probate taxes after the donor passes away. Another motivation is to give the donor the personal pleasure of seeing the beneficiary enjoy the gift or funds. While other reasons may exist, those are among the most common ones.

The following material reviews some key legal terms you’ll want to know while working with your Houston estate planning attorney. There’s also a list of key factors required for a valid transfer of an inter vivos gift.

Legal terms often used when conveying wealth or property as inter vivos gifts 

  • Donor/grantor. Both these terms are used to describe the person making the inter vivos gift;
  • Beneficiary. The party designated as the recipient of the funds or property;
  • Settlor.  This term is often just used to refer to someone who creates a trust;
  • Advancement. When making a formal inter vivos gift, you should tell your lawyer if you want to treat a gift as an “advancement” against future gifts you’ve already designated for a beneficiary in your estate plan. That will mean that the value of the current gift will reduce the size or value of your later bequest to the specific beneficiary.  You can also just state that you do not want your current, inter vivos gift treated as an advancement against what you’ve designated for a person or group in your estate plan; 
  • Capital gains taxes. Keep in mind the tax consequences that can occur if you currently give someone an inter vivos gift like stock shares. For example, if you give someone an inter vivos gift of stock shares that originally cost you less than $3,000 – but are now worth over $10,000 — your beneficiary will likely have to pay a capital gains tax on that gift. To prevent this burden from being passed on to a beneficiary, you may just want to give the person cash to buy stock shares — or anything else they prefer;
  • Gift taxes. At present, every beneficiary who receives an inter vivos gift worth more than $15,000 must pay a gift tax on the amount to the IRS. Therefore, most people who give these gifts keep them under $15,000 for each recipient. You’ll need to ask your attorney what the limits are on the size of the inter vivos gifts that spouses may want to give each other.

Choosing to create a trust when transferring wealth as an inter vivos gift

Some grantors may not want to make direct cash or property gifts. Instead, they make want to make this type of gift by creating either a revocable or irrevocable trust. As may now be clear, these types of trusts take effect while the settlor is still alive. In contrast, testamentary trusts don’t take effect until the settlor dies.

Here’s additional information about both revocable and irrevocable inter vivos trusts.

  • The revocable inter vivos trust. This can go into effect (or become operative) during the settlor’s own lifetime. This type of trust can also be referred to as a living trust – one that is drafted so that it won’t have to go through the probate process;
  • The irrevocable inter vivos trust. This type of conveyance is designed to go into effect while the settlor is still alive. However, it cannot be revoked after the settlor has finalized it. People normally use this type of trust to help reduce the beneficiary’s potential tax debt.

Key information about making inter vivos gifts to minors

Since minors cannot receive large gifts of money or property directly, inter vivos gifts made to them require the use of a trust. A party must be named as the guardian of the trust to manage its contents (under court supervision) on behalf of the child – until s/he reaches the age of majority.

Conditions that must be met for a valid inter vivos gift to be made

  • The donor must have capacity. As a donor, you must be at least 18 years old when you make this type of gift;
  • The donor must have the proper intent. This requirement usually means that the donor intends for the gift to be transferred during his/her lifetime;
  • Receipt of the gift by the beneficiary. You must arrange a reliable form of delivery to the beneficiary. This means the donor/grantor (or settlor) will then no longer have control over the funds or other property;
  • Acceptance. The beneficiary must accept the gift. While most of us would readily accept an inter vivos from someone else – that’s not going to be true of everyone. In some cases, high taxes might be due on the gift — or the recipient may simply not want to accept any gift from the grantor or settlor.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys with any questions you may have about making legal gifts to others for current delivery – or to be received later as part of your personal estate plan.

Workplace Evaluations: Skills, Aptitude, Psychological and Lie Detector Tests

Ideally, every job applicant should be fully tested and evaluated before being hired for any position. However, state and federal laws impose certain restraints on the specific types of tests that can be given to job seekers. While skills tests are usually the most critical and widely accepted exams, care must be taken to administer them fairly and accurately.

Here’s a general overview of the types of job applicant rights you must respect while using any of the types of tests referenced above. As will be referenced below, all tests must be given in full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Skills and aptitude tests – evaluating clerical, computer software and other job skills

A general rule of thumb that can guide you about many tests is that they must be specific to the types of skills that a job requires on a regular basis. Therefore, it’s usually fine to find out how fast a potential clerical employee can type or how much someone knows about repairing and maintaining computer systems if you’re hiring a computer help desk employee.

While you can usually test most the job skills of the disabled, you may need to make some accommodations in how you administer such tests. Cornell University’s publication entitled, Pre-Employment Testing and the ADAis well worth reviewing to gain a better understanding of job testing requirements. Just keep in mind that certain timed tests may need to provide slightly longer completion times and accommodations may need to be extended to applicants who’ve made their special testing needs known to you, in advance.

Although general aptitude tests can still be given using multiple choice tests, great care must be taken to avoid formats that may mainly reward test-taking skills over a job candidate’s ability to properly handle future job tasks. Short-answer questions based on factual job topics may provide greater insights into a person’s capabilities.

Psychological testing of job applicants

Although some employers still place great value on these types of tests, they are no longer highly favored. Two of the chief reasons that employers are thinking twice about administering these types of tests is that they can sometimes illegally discriminate against certain job applicants or invade their privacy regarding their moral and religious beliefs.

Employers should only administer psychological profile tests that have been scientifically validated, indicating direct correlations with a worker’s job performance. Another potential problem with psychological testing is that the ADA does not allow medically oriented tests to be administered to applicants who are disabled — if it might help discern their disabilities.

In certain situations, the ADA may also require you to revise a psychological or other test if an applicant claims it tests skills related to his/her disability (such as hearing capacity) – that are not regularly required for the job.

Lie detector or “honesty” tests for job applicants and employees

In general, the federal Employee Polygraph Protection Act – with only limited exceptions – prevents employers from requiring job applicants or employees to undergo lie detector tests. While certain types of unique applicants or employees may have to take such tests – including those wanting to provide armored security services (or dispense pharmaceuticals) – restrictions must still be honored as to how such tests are administered and evaluated.

Most of the time, in the few instances when a larger employer might want to administer this type of test, it’s normally only used when there’s reasonable suspicion that an employee may have embezzled from the company or committed other workplace theft.

At present, experts on this topic indicate that it’s nearly always best to restrict the use of any type of “honesty” test to situations where an employee may need to handle cash.

Always remember that in order to protect your company or business from any possible future claims of discrimination, you must make sure that all job applicants take the required tests at the same basic time in the hiring process.

Every employer may want to create a copy of this EEOC document designed to help determine the best job candidates — while fully complying with all federal laws.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb lawyers if you need legal advice about administering specific tests to any of your job applicants or employees. We also remain available to discuss any other legal concerns you may have – and can readily draft a wide range of contracts and other documents you may need while conducting daily transactions with your business customers and other parties.

Designating a Guardian for Your Children in a Will

If you’re a parent with children who haven’t yet reached the age of majority, you need to create a Will that designates a guardian to step in and look after them if you suddenly pass away. If you fail to provide for your kids in this manner, a court will usually appoint someone to serve in this role – especially if your former spouse is deceased or incapable of handling this responsibility.

A list of traits and abilities a responsible guardian should have are set forth below. If your children have entered their teens at the time when no parent remains alive to care for them, the courts will normally consider their preferences for a guardian at that time.

What are some key considerations when choosing a guardian for your children?

  • It’s often best to choose someone already known to your kid(s) or who has a definite gift for caregiving. This might be one of your parents, a sibling or a very close and trusted friend. Always be sure to obtain this person’s advance permission to name him (or her) in your Will before doing so. If you prefer, you can also designate a married couple as co-guardians;
  • If possible, try to choose a person who already lives in the same city as you — or who is willing to relocate there in the future. It can be very comforting to children if they’re allowed to remain in their same school district. If you can’t find someone who lives nearby, be aware that it may prove a bit expensive for an out-of-state guardian to handle legal matters for the children in a different state. Choosing a local guardian can prevent this type of problem;
  • Give serious thought to choosing a guardian who will fully support your faith beliefs and core ethical values. It’s always best to appoint a person who’s eager to help your children grow up in the faith community you prefer – and who will daily enforce the moral teachings you treasure most;
  • Think about the financial responsibilities involved. Hopefully, you’ll have provided well for your children’s future with life insurance and other funds prior to your death. However, regardless of how much money you’ve put in an account for your kids, you’ll need a guardian who can responsibly handle money. If you do not know of anyone with strong financial skills, you can still choose a person to serve as the caregiving guardian – and designate a different individual to manage the children’s financial resources;
  • What should you do if you do not want your estranged spouse to become the guardian after you pass away? Your Houston estate planning attorney may advise you to write and sign a letter documenting your reasons – and to attach relevant police reports or court documents to the letter. You can then give that letter to your named guardian so that it can be presented to the court after you’ve passed away;
  • How should you proceed if you have children living with you from different marriages? It may be necessary to name more than one guardian for the children. Your main goal should be to keep as many of the kids together as possible. However, you must be realistic about how many children your named guardian can handle;
  • Give some thought to the age of the person you’d like to name. If your parent or another desired guardian is still in good health, you may decide to go ahead and name that person now and simply revisit your decision within the next five years (or when that guardian’s health suddenly declines.) If you are naming a much older person as guardian, be sure to also name a secondary guardian who is willing to step in if the first one cannot serve in this capacity after you pass away. In fact, it’s always a good idea to have a back-up guardian named in your Will;
  • Remember to name every child you want to be cared for by your guardian. It’s never wise to think that a court will assume that all your kids are covered if you only name one or two. Also, extended family members might step in and try to contest your choice if every child isn’t named individually.

Before finalizing any Will that designates one or more guardians, be sure to discuss your choices with your older children. Also, make sure each named guardian is truly interested in helping you by taking on such a demanding assignment.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can prepare a Will that designates a guardian for your children. We’ll be happy to answer any additional questions you may have about this critical task. Most parents gain a greater sense of peace once they’ve legally provided for these important caregiving needs for their children.

Handling Your Adult Child’s Estate in Texas

Losing a child of any age remains one of life’s most difficult challenges. When that child is an adult, you may often need legal advice on how to manage any estate left behind, even if it’s rather limited. Now that so many Americans are living well into their 70s and 80s, the chances of losing an adult child are growing.

One study found that 11.5 percent of people age 50 or older have lost at least one adult child. That likelihood of loss is even higher for African Americans – 16.7 percent of them have lost an adult child. Furthermore, the older you get, the sense of loss can be even harder to cope with since adult children are often the closest caregivers of their aging parents.

Here’s a look at some of the legal questions you’ll need to address after losing an adult child.

Issues Surviving Parents May Need to Face After an Adult Child Passes Away:

  • Did your son or daughter live with and leave behind a spouse or partner? If so, calmly reach out to that person to find out if there’s a Will naming the personal representative of the estate. If your child didn’t have a Will or named someone else as the executor of their Will, you’ll need to interact very sensitively with that person. When you contact your Houston estate planning lawyer, be prepared to indicate your adult child’s marital status at the time of death;
  • Did your adult child have any children? It’s important to stay on good terms with your loved one’s surviving spouse or partner since visitation rights and overall family harmony may depend upon your relationship with that person. (Note: If the surviving spouse or partner has any major substance abuse problems, be sure to share that information with your lawyer. We can explain pertinent child custody and adoption laws, if necessary);
  • Did your son or daughter own considerable land or personal property? Your attorney can help you try to prevent anyone from giving away or disposing of such property before the estate can be probated – or passed on according to your adult child’s estate plan. If you’ve been named the personal representative, obtain a copy of the Will as soon as possible. If no one is living in your adult child’s former house or apartment, be sure someone visits soon to look for pets needing immediate care, valuables that must be secured and vehicles that must be locked and placed in a garage;
  • Contacting your adult child’s employer. If you were named as your adult child’s personal representative, you’ll soon need to contact that employer to find out what employee assets may still be held in a 401k or other account. Likewise, you’ll want to find out if any other benefits are still owing to your child – and if s/he held any type of insurance policy through the employer;
  • What should you do about burial, cremation and related issues? Always try to honor the instructions in your deceased child’s Will or other legal documents. If you can’t find a Will, then work with any surviving spouse/partner and other family members to handle this matter in keeping with your family’s faith practices or general traditions;
  • Do you know what to expect under Texas law if your adult child died intestate – without a Will or some other type of estate plan?  Your Houston estate planning attorney can explain how Texas courts address this type of situation. We can also inform you about how estates are handled by probate courts and how you should manage other tasks that are often required after losing an adult child.

Please know that since our firm has worked with many clients grieving over the loss of loved ones. We’ll provide our legal advice in the most caring manner possible. When you contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys, we’ll be ready to provide you with simple steps to take so you can concentrate on obtaining comfort from family and friends.

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.