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.

Overview of Small Business Administration Online Courses

Ever since our government created the SBA (Small Business Administration) back in 1953, it’s been working hard to promote, assist and protect America’s small business interests. Chief among its goals is to help entrepreneurs as they try to create and “grow” new companies.

During recent years, the SBA has been offering online courses that can help people focus in on creating viable business plans – while also securing adequate funding for their initial marketing and other needs. Whether your business is still in the planning stages – or already gaining traction – you can benefit by taking several of these courses.

SBA classes can greatly help many business owners

  • The All Small Mentor-Protégé Program. Like most of the courses offered, this one allows you to glance at a course transcript or outline before starting the class. This 30-minute program is designed to help entrepreneurs decide if they’re businesses are ready to sell goods or services to the federal government. If you believe your business is ready, you can take this course and use the certification of completion while applying for acceptance into this mentor-protégé program;
  • Business opportunities. This 30-minute class (offered on a self-paced basis), helps entrepreneurs learn how federal contract procedures work and what they must first do before trying to sell goods to the federal government;
  • A course on gaining a competitive advantage for your company. This SBA class teaches students how to accurately evaluate their competition, create a brand, seek out potential customers and decide how best to set prices for their goods and services;
  • Financing your business. There are many ways to come up with the money you’ll need besides funding it yourself or obtaining a bank loan. This class explains the basics facts about venture capital, crowdfunding, angel investors, grants and other sources. You’ll also gain a better idea how to figure out your exact start-up costs and other expenses;
  • Legal requirements for a small business. This course explains many basic aspects of employment law that must be understood before trying to start a company. One key topic looks at how you must responsibly hire and fire employees. Be sure to speak with your Houston business law attorney during the earliest stages of starting your company to make sure you’re complying with all applicable state, local and federal laws;
  • Social media marketing. Every small business owner must learn how to properly market goods and service to the public using social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, YouTube, Tumblr and others. This course also teaches students how to reach their prime or target audiences based on such factors as age and location;
  • Growing an established company.  At some point, most companies find themselves facing unexpected competition or a change in market forces that makes them need to retool their approach to winning new customers. This class will help you determine if your company is ready to expand and how to carry out that goal. It also teaches important growth strategies;
  • A course on buying a company already in business. Terms like due diligence are explained so that students will understand the critical need to learn all they can about any business before buying it,
  • The special cybersecurity needs of small businesses. This course helps acquaint owners with some of the ways they can try to protect themselves against major cyber threats that can take down websites and otherwise disrupt normal business transactions. There’s also a related class that describes useful ways to prevent general crimes from being committed against your company.

All the courses referenced above may prove useful to a large percentage of new businesses (or those needing to reinvent themselves). The following brief synopses are related to classes created for unique groups of entrepreneurs.

SBA classes designed for the needs of specific individuals and groups

  • Special contracting opportunities for veteran entrepreneurs. Nearly one in ten U. S. businesses are owned by military veterans. Since these men and women often face special burdens after serving our country, the government has created unique programs to help them find profitable ways to support themselves and provide jobs to others;
  • A course designed for Spanish-speaking young people. Titled Jovenes Emprendedores, this class provides key guidance for those who need business training materials taught and presented in Spanish). There is also a class designed for young entrepreneurs who are native English speakers;
  • Business development class for Native American businesses. Students in this class will learn more about the 8 (a) Business Development Program that’s been specially set up to help many small business owners facing economic disadvantages;
  • Entrepreneurship program for women over 50. Given the high number of seniors now needing to remain in the workforce past normal retirement age, this course is perfect for older women wanting to get new businesses off to a good start. Those who take this course may also want to review the materials designed for the more general WOSB (women-owned small business) Advantage class.

The courses referenced above are just a sampling of the roughly 63 free classes available to anyone who has 30 minutes (or more) to spend mastering these core topics. Should you decide to contact the SBA directly or online, they may be able to provide you with additional online and community resources that can help you get your business off to a promising start.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys while trying to start up a new company – or purchasing one that’s already helping customers. We appreciate the opportunity to help all our clients succeed in all their new business endeavors.

Update: Department of Labor Issues New Rule on Overtime Pay

The Department of Labor issued a final rule in September of 2019 that could allow an additional 1.3 million more American workers to become eligible to receive overtime pay. This new rule becomes effective on January 1, 2020.

One key focus of the new rule is to update the earning thresholds that exempt certain professional, executive and administrative employees from the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) minimum wage and overtime pay guidelines. The new rule is also designed to allow employers to count portions of some bonuses and commissions toward meeting the required salary level.

These adjustments are being made to recognize the increase in employee earnings that have occurred since these salary thresholds were last reviewed in 2004.

Earning levels and other specific issues addressed by the new DOL rule

  • Changes are being made to the “standard salary level.” At present, the enforced earning level is $455 per week – and that’s being raised to $684 per week (or $35,568 for an entire year);
  • There’s an increase in the total annual compensation requirements for workers categorized as “highly compensated employees.” The current enforced level of $100,000 a year is now being raised to $107,432 annually;
  • Employers can now count nondiscretionary incentive payments, bonuses and commissions paid at least once annually. These sums can now be added to help satisfy as much as 10% of what’s now known as the standard salary level – recognizing how pay practices are evolving;
  • Salary levels have now been revised for specific groups of workers. These include people who labor in U. S. territories – or individuals employed by the motion picture industry.

Some of the many earlier overtime pay guidelines that still apply

  • Unlimited overtime hours.  The FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) still allows exempt employees age 16 and older to work an unlimited number of overtime hours during any one workweek;
  • Timely payment of overtime. Employers must pay for all hours worked, including overtime, on each regular pay day;
  • When overtime pay is required. Once a non-exempt worker has put in at least 40 hours during any one calendar workweek (which can begin on any day of the week), the overtime pay rate applies.

If you have any questions about how the new DOL overtime pay rule may affect your workforce, please give one of our Murray Lobb attorneys a call. We’re also available to provide legal advice on many other important topics – and can draft any contracts or other documents you may 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.

The SBA Suggests 10 Key Steps for Starting a New Business

Once you’ve decided to start a new business, it can be tempting to simply moved forward with various tasks as they come to mind. While this may work for a few entrepreneurs, it’s always best to create an organized plan of action so you won’t waste time and cause problems for yourself that could easily have been avoided.

Fortunately, the SBA (Small Business Administration) provides excellent online materials that can help you plan the most useful way to start a new company – or expand the current reach of an existing one. Here’s a brief review of the ten important tasks that should normally be addressed first as you launch a new business.

The key steps for creating a solid foundation for your new business

  1. Decide where to locate your company. Prior to starting any market research, you’ll need to look at several cities to decide upon the best location for your business. This decision must be partly based on if you’ll be selling goods and services to your customers from a brick-and-mortar storefront or office – or if you’ll just be contacting potential customers on the phone or over the Internet. Be sure to select a location where many well-qualified job applicants live – as well as a city and state with reasonable business taxes;
  1. Develop a reliable market research plan. Once you’re certain about the goods or services your new business will sell, you must conduct market research to verify that there’s a definite need for what you’ll be selling in a specific location. This activity also involves identifying your potential customers and all known competitors; 
  2. Create a viable business plan. Most people starting a new business choose between a traditional business plan or a lean one for a basic start-up company. If you need to borrow money to finance your company, you’ll almost certainly have to provide a lender with a traditional business plan.

The traditional plan is normally very comprehensive – it describes your specific goods and services, provides a mission statement about what you seek to accomplish in the long run and names the initial team of professionals who will be running the company. It also states where the business will be located and how many employees you’ll need to hire. A traditional business plan should also describe the business structure you’ll be using, who will be handling specific tasks – and it should review your market analysis. Initial financial projections or earnings for the company should also be included.

In contrast, a lean start-up business plan may simply describe your goods and services, provide a statement about who will be running the company and state who you believe will be your most likely customers. It should also contain information about how you’ll initially finance the company and where it will be located;

  1. Make sure you have enough initial funding for the company. You and your business partners or advisors must determine how much money you’ll need to start your business. If you cannot raise this money among your business partners, then may have to try and obtain funds from venture capitalists or request a small business loan from a bank or through SBA resources. Other options include raising capital through crowdfunding or other online resources;
  2. Select the best business structure for your company. While many people run sole proprietorships if they’ll be handling all of the major company tasks themselves, others choose between forming such structures as partnerships, limited liability companies (LLCs) — or some type of corporation or cooperative;
  3. Decide upon the best name for your company. It’s a good idea to brainstorm with your partners or investors since you want to try and choose a name that clearly reflects the nature or “brand” of your business – as well as its spirit. Be aware that one of your first tasks will be to make sure the name you select is original and that it’s not already being used by anyone else;
  1. Be sure to register and protect your business name. After you’ve chosen the best name for your company, you’ll need to take steps to protect that name by properly registering it. Keep in mind that you may also need to register any trademark you’ll be using. Since additional ways of protecting your company name may also be required, you should always discuss this topic with your Houston business law attorney;
  2. You must request state and federal tax IDs. You will need to obtain an EIN (employer identification number) for many reasons. For example, you must have an EIN to open a bank account for your company and to pay taxes (among other tasks). Depending on the different states where your company will be operating, you may also need to obtain one or more state tax IDs;
  3. Obtain all required licenses and permits. Your specific type of business activity and where you’ll be working will determine the types of permits and licenses you must obtain, if any;
  4. Be sure to open one or more business accounts for your company. These most often include checking and savings accounts, credit card accounts and a merchant services account. Depending on the nature of your business and its initial size, you may be able to simply start with a checking account and then open other accounts as the need arises.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys for legal advice as you address any or all of the various steps named above while starting a new business. We’ve had the opportunity to help many clients establish a wide variety of successful businesses in the past and are prepared to provide you will all the guidance you may need.

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.

What Types of Deceptive Trade Practices Are Forbidden in Texas?

Too many Texas consumers regularly lose money on purchases due to misleading advertising and fraudulent business practices. When those events occur – especially when large sums of money are involved – it’s often necessary to contact the Consumer Protection Division of the Texas Attorney General’s Office. That division is charged with enforcing the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act (DTPA) that’s set forth in the Texas Business and Commerce Code.

A Consumer Protective Division lawyer must then investigate the consumer complaint and decide if any legal remedy like an injunction must be pursued. The wronged consumer should also consider hiring a Houston business law attorney to file a lawsuit seeking Texas DTPA damages from the merchant or company that allegedly violated the DTPA.

Here’s a brief look at those who may want to file these types of complaints and lawsuits, followed by a review of some of the commonly alleged DTPA violations — and the basic types of civil damages available to plaintiffs who win these kinds of cases.

The general categories of plaintiffs under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act

  • The average, individual consumer buying property or goods. When buying a home, a car, indoor furnishings or other personal property, a consumer has the right to complete such transactions without being fraudulently manipulated by false advertising or other schemes that cause the loss of hard-earned money;
  • Those seeking repairs (or other types of service) work. Consumers must be quoted fair and accurate rates. They must also be provided with correct information about the training and experience of those who will be performing the requested services;
  • Individuals or companies seeking to close expensive business transactions, within certain established financial limitations. For example, a person or company seeking to buy a business franchise worth three hundred thousand dollars will usually be covered. However, the Texas DTPA is not intended to cover any business consumer with assets worth more than $25 million or more – or a business entity with $25 million (or more) in assets that’s controlled or owned by another business or corporation that has assets valued at or above $25 million.

Types of complaints and claims often brought under the Texas DTPA

Since highly diverse claims are covered by this statute, the following list only provides a general sampling of the complaints often alleged by consumers.

  • Being sold goods or services that were not actually made by the company that claimed to have created or provided them. In other words, the seller tried to mislead the buyer as to the true maker or provider of what was being sold;
  • Buyers were intentionally misled as to where certain goods or services originated. It’s against the law to sell goods claiming they were grown or made in a specific country when the seller knew that wasn’t true. Likewise, you cannot advertise that certain services will be provided by employees or contractors from one city or region who will be coming from another location;
  • Advertising goods or services as having the approval or sponsorship of specific individuals or groups when that’s a fraudulent claim. For example, you cannot sell certain medical devices and claim they’re backed by the American Medical Association (or a local medical group) when that’s untrue. Likewise, there can be no attempt to claim that the seller had direct ties to another specific company or government entity when that’s a fraudulent misrepresentation;
  • Selling goods or services and saying that they meet certain objective standards (or are made of specific types of materials) when that’s an intentional misrepresentation. For example, a company cannot claim that a couch was made of leather when it knew it was made of Naugahyde. Likewise, a company cannot claim all service personnel have earned specific licensing credentials – or are bonded – when it knows that’s false information;
  • Making purposeful “bait-and switch” sales. It’s a deceptive trade practice to run a print ad (or an online or televised commercial) that states that a store is selling a specific brand of products – or providing a certain grade of service by specially trained personnel – when the seller knows those facts to be false. Likewise, a company cannot claim that highly experienced contractors with over 10 years of experience are being sent to someone’s home to repair a major roof leak – when the actual workers have very little experience handling such tasks;
  • Misleading the buying public as to why certain goods are being sold at a major discount. For example, a merchant cannot claim that an accidental, large shipment of goods came in and they must now be sold at a greatly reduced price – when that merchant is really trying to unload damaged goods on unsuspecting buyers;
  • Selling a car, truck or other vehicle after rolling back the odometer. When a seller has any reason to believe that someone has reset or rolled back an odometer – or has personally done so because that part stopped recording mileage – all such facts must be fully disclosed to each potential buyer;
  • Taking advantage of the buying public after a natural disaster has been formally declared by the state’s governor. The DTPA does not allow anyone to sell goods at excessive or unfair prices, especially after a natural disaster like a flood. Therefore, no store can charge inflated prices for necessities like water, food, fuel, flashlights, batteries or medicine.

While this list isn’t comprehensive, it should provide a clear idea of the types of fraud and misrepresentation that can cause lawyers with the Texas Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division – and individual consumers — to pursue through DTPA litigation.

Penalties or damages that can be sought for Texas DTPA violations 

As your personal lawyer will tell you, the Texas Attorney General’s public remedies may include different types of injunctions, restraining orders and penalties. Should you file a private lawsuit, the penalties awarded to you can be influenced by whether the wrongful conduct was knowingly committed. When a violation of the DTPA was “knowingly” committed, penalties are sometimes awarded at the level of three times the sum awarded for the economic damages.

If you believe your consumer rights under the Texas DTPA have been violated, you should contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We can provide you with the timely advice you’ll need while we help you decide whether to file a DTPA lawsuit on your behalf.

EEOC Guidelines: Training Employees About Workplace Discrimination

To create and maintain a professional work environment, employers must make sure everyone interacts in a respectful manner. The best way to promote respect is to provide proper employee training that carefully defines discriminatory behavior and clearly states what won’t be tolerated.

Newly hired employees should always be trained, even if this must be done individually. They must learn how to recognize forbidden forms of discrimination. Periodic retraining on sexual harassment and other common forms of discrimination should also be mandatory. If you don’t already have a hard copy or online employee handbook that clearly sets forth your workplace standards on discrimination, you can ask your Houston employment law attorney to help you draft one.

Here’s a review of the types of workplace discrimination and harassment that should be clearly forbidden in writing and during oral training sessions. After presenting information on these topics to all your employees, it’s best to also provide a bit more in-depth training to your supervisors and managers who will need to handle the discipline, complaints and investigations usually involved with reported acts of alleged discrimination.

What types of workplace discrimination are most common today?

  • Treating others differently due to their race, skin color, ethnic background or country of natural origin. No job applicant or employee should ever be treated unfairly due to any of these facts or traits. When investigating this type of claim, you may need to privately admonish and inform the wrongdoer that such behavior is legally forbidden and can lead to dismissal. (In egregious cases, immediate firing may be required.) Employers should keep detailed notes about all such complaints and formal reprimands. It’s wise to always have disciplined employees sign and date forms indicating that they’ve been warned that additional acts of discrimination may lead to dismissal. All employee files and complaints must be kept safely locked up and only accessed by a few managers;
  • Discrimination based upon a person’s sex including sexual harassment or current pregnancy status. All workers must learn to respect their coworkers, regardless of another employee’s sex. Stay open to questions and provide answers that are clearly supported by your company’s anti-discrimination policies;
  • Disability status. Regardless of whether someone was born with a physical disability or acquired one later in life, every effort must be made to help that person handle his/her job, unless doing so would place an undue burden on the employer. (Requests may often involve making facilities more accessible or changing an employee’s work schedule so it will interfere less with a medical disability);
  • Age. When workers are young, it’s hard for them to believe that age discrimination is real. However, as they grow older, they’ll start noticing how the most desirable promotions are often given to younger staff members – and not to older workers. And older workers often find themselves in the groups being laid off when a company claims it’s going through hard times. This type of discrimination is often self-defeating since older workers often: (1) have excellent problem-solving skills due to all their experience, (2) usually enjoy learning new skills and helping to train newcomers – and (3) often have the lowest rates of absenteeism due to their dedication to their employers;
  • Religion. Sadly, although most American adults know that one main reason this country was founded was to extend religious freedom to all citizens, too many people today treat coworkers with disrespect when they appear to follow faith practices different than their own;
  • Discrimination related to an employee’s genetic information (or family medical history). Both state and federal laws forbid this type of discrimination. One of the federal laws is named the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA). Title II of GINA specifically prohibits workplace discrimination based upon an employee’s genetic information. Employers must exercise great care when hiring the employees who must handle all company medical insurance and claim forms. These workers must understand that any knowledge they accidentally gain about an employee’s medical condition(s) or family history must be held in the strictest confidence.

Special training for company managers and supervisors

An additional, separate training should be periodically presented to these employees to be sure they fully understand how to handle every discrimination complaint they receive. After all, they will be playing a key role in investigating these complaints and making sure they handle their responsibilities in strict compliance with all state and federal laws.

Be sure that these higher-level employees have made the complaint process both easy and transparent for workers. It’s their job to remind employees that they will not be punished for coming forward with claims – or acting as witnesses for those who are filing claims.

In your special training program for these workers, be sure to also address the following topics.

  • Managers must understand that detailed, investigative notes must be kept. When an employee files a complaint based on alleged acts of discrimination or harassment, you need to obtain information about each time such acts were committed and get the names of all possible witnesses. Dates and times are crucial bits of information. If more than one person was involved in the illegal behavior, be sure to write down all names – and speak with each of these individuals separately;
  • All managers and supervisors need clear definitions of what can constitute a “reasonable accommodation” for a disabled employee. It’s a good idea to review the content of your training with your attorney prior to making this type of presentation;
  • Retaliation. Inform higher-level employees that all forms of retaliation for reporting alleged acts of discrimination or harassment are strictly forbidden – and can result in liability for those involved;
  • Acceptable religious attire, hairstyles and practices. Explain to your managers what type of religious clothing is fully acceptable in the workplace. You should also tell them which hair or beard styles should be allowed, based upon an employee’s stated religious beliefs. When possible, managers should try to accommodate time off from work to attend special worship services – if doing so won’t cause an undue burden on co-workers or the company;
  • Sexual harassment. Supervisors and managers must be fully acquainted with all the types of language and behavior that can constitute sexual harassment. Remind them that offensive cartoons or signs related to sex should never be posted or circulated at work;
  • Privacy is crucial to all investigations. Remind all of those involved with investigating any claims of discrimination or harassment that they must never share any information they gain with non-investigative employees – or anyone outside of the company – since confidentiality is critical for everyone.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys if you have any questions about how you’ve drafted portions of your employee handbook, especially sections addressing discrimination and sexual harassment. We can provide you with useful advice and are always available to help should an employee file a claim with you or the EEOC alleging any form of workplace discrimination.

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.