Your legal responsibilities
As employment laws change or are enacted, practice owners and managers need to be cognizant of all the twists and turns. An array of online resources is available to explain the details, or you might want to consult an attorney.
Keeping up with evolving employment-related legislation can be difficult for small business owners, and COVID-19 made the situation even more problematic. As laws containing new and sometimes confusing information are rapidly passed, a veterinary practice owner’s compliance with the legislation might lag, which can have consequences as serious as litigation.
As a general approach, gathering a list of trustworthy resources that you can regularly check is helpful. You need to review the most current information on topics ranging from employee health care and workers’ compensation to paid time off, unemployment and retirement. Once armed with the foundational knowledge, you can then determine which tasks can be handled within the practice and which ones require help from an expert, such as an employment attorney.
Research Employment Law
At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Labor provides information on a comprehensive range of employment issues. As one example, a resource page at bit.ly/2XGC9e4 addresses COVID-19’s impact on employers and employees. The department also provides a newsletter at bit.ly/2ynnsSx along with contact information for state labor offices at bit.ly/2XFuc97 so that you can stay up to date with state laws and pending legislation. Subscribe to receive email updates about federal and state matters.
If you come across an unfamiliar legal term, the Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute has a wiki-style dictionary and encyclopedia at bit.ly/3bgqaYT. For human resources legal advice, check out Nolo’s free employment law center at bit.ly/2RI5lOa. Nolo has been publishing legal guides since 1971 and has a trusted website.
You also can glean information, including state and local updates, from the Society for Human Resource Management at bit.ly/3bqNbYU. If you find the free content to be valuable, consider becoming a dues-paying member.
Another helpful resource is the National Federation of Independent Business, whose Small Business Legal Center is at bit.ly/2XFo5lh. The organization monitors legislation and goes to courts to advocate for small business interests. State-level news can be found at bit.ly/2Vbjt4y. For in-depth information specific to your practice, get a paid membership, which includes the opportunity to call and ask questions.
Another in-depth resource is HR/Business and Legal Resources, which offers state-specific information on a variety of employment topics at bit.ly/2Vycqlv. A reasonable amount of content is free, but more is available to members. To see if premium content would be valuable for your practice, sign up for a 14-day free trial.
The links above aren’t a comprehensive list, but they make up some of the most commonly used and trusted go-to experts. If you find another credible source that provides the employment law information you need, share it with the rest of your team.
Once you’ve identified legal resources and signed up for newsletters, email alerts and so forth, what’s next? Consider:
- Choosing someone at your practice to monitor all the information that’s coming in. If you have a distinct human resource department, the decision will be easy compared with having to communicate with multiple employees who wear the HR hat.
- Identifying the websites and resources that are most valuable to your practice. Receiving and reviewing information from a larger number of organizations might make sense at first until you’re able to focus on those that provide the targeted information of most value to you.
- Determining which message format works best. For example, your practice might find that watching videos on employment law updates is the best use of everyone’s time.
- Completing online training. This might come with a cost, but the format likely will be less expensive than traveling to a training location, though the latter commonly offers in-depth networking.
As employment laws evolve and you get up to speed on the details, a review of your policies and procedures is important. Update manuals and documents as needed, and share the revised information with your practice team.
When You Need an Attorney
The ideal situation is to have an employment law attorney on retainer. This is someone you trust and who knows the legal issues facing veterinary practices and your practice’s unique workplace culture. If that’s not possible, the next best option is to choose an attorney whose expertise dovetails with your practice’s needs. Consult with the person when significant issues arise or when you need clarification on employment laws.
Examples of when consulting an employment attorney makes sense include, but are not limited to:
- Firing an employee. Ideally, you always run employee terminations past your attorney, especially if you believe the employee might sue over a contract matter or a protected-class issue.
- Responding to a serious employee complaint or lawsuit.
- Formulating a contract or agreement.
- Creating or updating an employee manual.
- Bringing in or buying out a practice business partner.
Choosing the Right Attorney
If you don’t have an attorney or are looking to switch, be clear about what you want from the legal expert. If you want the person to regularly update you on changes in employment laws, for example, that’s different from wanting someone available at any time to address a specific issue.
Consider requesting recommendations from the owners of other veterinary practices or small businesses. Ask what they like and possibly don’t like about their attorneys. You can read online reviews of attorneys, but remember that just about every attorney of substance is likely to have an unhappy client or two. You also can use lawyer directories such as those available through the American Bar Association at bit.ly/3clxGBK.
Once you have a shortlist of candidates, interview each one. Many attorneys offer a free initial consultation. You’ll want an experienced attorney who is well-versed with your state’s laws, whom you feel comfortable with, and who communicates well without reverting to jargon. By the end of the initial conversation, you should be able to determine whether the individual has the right personality and the knowledge to successfully assist you in managing your veterinary practice.
H.R. Huddle columnist Kellie G. Olah is a human resources consultant at Veterinary Business Advisors Inc. Learn more at www.veterinarybusinessadvisors.com.