5 Tips to Successful Company Communication

According to management expert and dean of Harvard Business School, Nitin Nohria, communication is the real work of leadership. And that doesn’t apply only to Fortune 500 companies. No matter the size of the organization, effective managers must be strong communicators to inspire and lead their teams. Unfortunately, with day-to-day business demands, communication skills are getting short shrift at too many companies. Today we’re going to give you a communication tune-up—a set of strategies and suggestions that will help keep your communications efforts on point.

1. Understand that whether you realize it or not, you’re always communicating. Your office environment, corporate culture, and treatment of customers and employees all say a lot about your company. Each of these contributes to your overall reputation in the marketplace or, if you prefer, your brand. As Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, says, “Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room.” So pay some attention to those branding elements, and make sure that the communications you telegraph are in line with your desired goals and reputation.

2. Encourage regular and ongoing feedback from managers and supervisors to employees. This should include both positive and negative, or constructive, feedback. Remember, no employee likes to be ambushed at review time with the news that he or she has underperformed or failed to meet a goal. The time to communicate this information is while the employee can actually do something to change the situation. Equally important, provide the resources necessary for your employees to make the changes and improvements you request.

3. Pay attention to the language you use. In today’s modern workplace, we recognize that certain terms or phrases might be considered offensive or derogatory, and we don’t use them. Similarly, we must be sensitive to how our language is perceived and make adjustments. Psychologists and corporate trainers have long touted the use of “I” statements to communicate without triggering a defensive response. For example, a boss telling an employee, “You didn’t do this project correctly,” lands very differently than, “I was hoping to see this project handled in a different way.” Both statements communicate that the project in question did not meet the boss’ expectations, but in very different fashions. The “I” statement is likely to lead to further positive engagement with the employee. Similarly, consider using the tried and true “sandwich method” of constructive criticism, where you bookend the area to be improved between two positives. For example, “I really like how you ran that seminar. I’d like to see more detail when discussing the financials, but I’m sure you can easily make that change for the next session.” This is so much more effective than saying, for example, “You left out the financials! Fix it!”

4. Listen. Your ability to listen to employees’ cares, concerns, and issues—and let them know that you’re paying attention and responding—is absolutely essential. In one-on-one or small group settings, remember to practice active listening. Make understanding the speaker your primary goal; do not be judgmental; give the speaker your undivided attention; and don’t interrupt. Rather, signal your agreement or input through body language, eye contact, nodding, or even words like “uh huh.”

Along that vein, make sure you provide ample opportunity for your employees to share their concerns and issues to a receptive audience. Just as a supervisor should deliver constructive criticism all year long, so should employees be given a venue to deliver their own input. This could take the form of open-door policies for access to a boss or manager; town-hall style meetings where the company or specific departments meet with higher-ups in groups and ask questions; formal surveys that solicit employee opinions; or even the tried and true suggestion box, which can be anonymous. Of course, make sure you communicate back to employees any answers, solutions, or policy changes that come about as a result of their feedback.

5. Be clear, correct, and consistent in all your communications. Provide simple directions and easy-to-understand explanations in all forms of communications, both external and internal. Use good grammar and check for errors in spelling and usage by asking a colleague to proofread it. Also, if you have an employee handbook, update it regularly to ensure that its contents are current and in compliance with applicable law. You should also take care to make sure that your communications are consistent across platforms—for example, a policy or procedure in the employee handbook should be echoed on the company intranet, in memos, in emails, and in all verbal communications.

Indeed, effective employee communication has many dimensions, and it must be an ongoing goal and effort at your organization. But keeping the basics in mind, and practicing them in your daily interactions, will serve you well. As we said earlier, you are always communicating—but how well and effectively you do it are up to you. To learn more about HR and benefits management, including how to manage the performance review process, visit us online at execupay.com

Office Romance. Did You Get the Memo?

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Office romance is becoming increasingly more common. But whether or not workplace romances lead to wedded bliss, they must be handled with care.

Office romance can provide a unique set of challenges to both parties involved, as well as to their supervisors and HR managers. Indeed, no matter how discreet or consensual, these relationships come with some built-in pitfalls. First and most simply, office romances can become a distraction. They can harm the productivity of both the parties involved and their immediate colleagues. Nobody is immune to office gossip…and a budding romance makes for compelling water cooler chat.

More seriously, an office romance can lead to the perception—real or imagined—of favoritism. When a romance occurs between colleagues at different levels of the company, or when one is in a position to positively influence the career, compensation or opportunities for advancement of the other, the perception of favoritism can arise. This is, of course, particularly an issue when the relationship occurs between an employee and his or her supervisor, or someone up the chain of reporting.

A related pitfall is the possibility of damaged credibility or reputation for both the individuals involved as well as the department or company as a whole. Individuals who are dating colleagues may be perceived as less professional for mixing business and pleasure, or even as using their romantic liaisons to advance their position. Next, consider what could happen if a workplace romance turns sour. With a breakup comes the possibility of hard feelings, a stressful environment, disruption of work and productivity or even the potential loss of a valued employee who seeks employment elsewhere to distance him or herself from a former romantic partner. Most seriously, an office romance that ends less than amicably can have significant legal consequences.

Let’s take a moment to discuss sexual harassment, which is illegal under federal law and the law in most states. Simply defined, sexual harassment is any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that either results in a hostile work environment and/or results in a tangible employment action, such as a firing, promotion or demotion based on the employee’s submission to or refusal of sexual advances. In addition, a relationship gone sour can provoke illegal behavior such as threats, unwanted contact or other forms of harassment that don’t belong in a workplace or anywhere else.

So what can you do as a supervisor or HR manager to minimize these pitfalls? First, develop a policy on interoffice dating and relationships, and publish it in your employee handbook. While you cannot regulate employees’ off-site behavior and personal choices, you can clearly state that disruption or distraction due to office romance will not be tolerated. You can also prohibit relationships between supervisors and their direct reports, or between any individuals in a chain of command. Outline a procedure for helping such individuals find different positions within the company or, as a last resort, employment elsewhere. Explain your company’s commitment to integrity and professionalism, both internal and external.

Finally, draft, publish and distribute a zero-tolerance policy for sexual or any other kind of harassment in the workplace, including threats or intimidation. Remember, in some instances, the liability for charges of sexual harassment or a hostile work environment could land on the employer…so you must work to avoid these situations. With a strong policy and good communication in place, you have a great chance of smoothing out any disruption and threats office romance might pose to your organization. For more information, and to learn more about sexual harassment, visit us online at www.execupay.com.

How to Manage the “Excuse Maker”

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Ben Franklin may have been right when he said, “He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.”  But Franklin’s adage is cold comfort to managers whose employees always seem to have an excuse for failing to meet expectations.  Luckily, there are strategies to help managers turn repeat excuse-makers into productive team members, before giving up on them completely.

Make sure to give clear direction. If your employee often says he couldn’t get the project done because the assignment wasn’t clear, you may be dealing with someone who—at least for the moment—needs more detailed directives than your other team members.  It’s also possible that your directions were, in fact, unclear.  Break down long assignments into smaller tasks, and review them carefully with the employee, giving pointers on the most efficient approach.

Be involved.  The employee might not fully understand the expectations and duties of her position.  Or she may lack the confidence to take the initiative and tackle obstacles independently.  Micromanaging gets a bad rep, but sometimes weaker members of your team need closer oversight than others. Schedule status updates with the employee, during which you can help address roadblocks on projects as they arise and guide the employee to next steps. Daily “standing meetings,”—brief, informal gatherings where team members stand and talk about problems encountered or tasks completed—can be useful for this purpose.

Even if your excuse-maker is really just shirking responsibility, these regular check-ins will show her you’re paying attention. They’ll also allow you to keep tabs on the project, so you won’t get a nasty surprise at deadline.  Which leads us to our next point …

Demand a “heads up.” Emphasize that you need to know in advance when the employee suspects an assignment won’t be finished on time. Tell the employee that armed with advance notice, you can do your job as manager—bringing in extra help, getting hold of needed materials–whatever is necessary to get the project done.

Explain the consequences. Give the employee the motivation to perform by pointing out the ramifications of his missed deadlines or incomplete work. Convey the message that repeated failures to complete projects on time and as expected will impact the employee’s performance review.

You can couch this in a positive way as well, by pointing out that meeting deadlines with quality work paves the way for recognition and advancement in the company.

Also make sure the employee understands the wider negative effects of missed deadlines–on the team, department, company and client.

Don’t let it slide. If you make a habit of accepting excuses, you’re enabling the behavior, which will likely continue. Failing to deal with the situation head-on is also unfair to employees who do pull their weight, and who may become excuse-makers themselves. After all, why should they pick up the slack for a slacker?

So keep track of your troublesome employee’s excuses, and put them under a spotlight.  The next time the employee blames traffic for being late to work, point out how many times he has used that excuse in the past week, month, or quarter.  If the employee blames someone else for a missed deadline, call or email that person—in the employee’s presence—to get the other side of the story.

Finally, try turning the tables on the employee. Ask the excuse-maker to figure a way out of the hole she has dug, for you and anyone else affected by the incomplete work. The visuals aren’t ready for tomorrow’s client presentation? You’re out of supplies, but the supply contract hasn’t been finalized? How does the employee propose to deal with the situation?  This strategy forces the employee to take responsibility for her lax attitude. She may not be able to come up with a workable solution, but the exercise should help her understand how important it is to the company that she do her job well.

To learn more about HR and benefits management, including progressive discipline, visit us online at execupay.com

5 Tips to Help Managers Minimize Lawsuits

Image result for bexar county courthouseGreat managers are skilled at connecting with employees and motivating them to work productively as part of a team. Having strong managers is essential for building your company’s profitability and reputation as a great place to work. However, even great managers, with the best of intentions, can inadvertently make mistakes that might expose your company to lawsuits and fines.

Employee lawsuits are an unfortunate reality in today’s workplace, and a source of concern to employers. Even a completely baseless suit can cost six figures to defend; if there’s merit behind the charges, the legal bills, fines, and settlement fees can ruin a small business. Your managers, who are the first line of employee contact, have the power to minimize some of that exposure.

Let’s take a look at five moves your managers can make to reduce your risk of a lawsuit.

1. Document Everything. This starts with the interview and extends to every aspect of management and supervisory functions. Remember, any document can potentially be used as a piece of evidence in the event of a lawsuit, so managers must be thorough. As an employer, stress the importance of documentation, provide forms and guidelines for managers to follow, and establish procedures for where and how long such documents will be stored, being sure to comply with any requirements set by law. Furthermore, ask your managers to be honest in all aspects of documentation. Many managers, for example, are tempted to gloss over areas of weakness in written performance reviews. While they may be motivated out of kindness toward the employee, they are actually putting their companies at risk in the event such an individual is eventually fired. In all cases, the records must be accurate.

2. Understand Discrimination and Harassment Laws. There are numerous federal and state laws that offer protection from discrimination based on gender, race, age, religion, disability, ethnic or cultural background, sexual orientation and other factors. Make sure your managers receive anti-discrimination training and know what they can and cannot ask or require of their employees. A simple remark, made casually, could wind up being the basis of a lawsuit. Similarly, your managers need to understand the laws surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace, how to prevent it from occurring, and what steps should be taken if an employee complains of harassment. Even behavior that may be the norm in your organization or corporate culture could be perceived as crossing the line, and may trigger a lawsuit.

3. Follow Appropriate Disciplinary Procedures. If you do not already have such procedures in place, consider developing a progressive discipline policy and direct your managers on how to implement it consistently and fairly. For example, an employee with a performance or behavioral issue will first receive a verbal warning, then a written warning. If the underperformance or behavior persists, the issue will then be elevated to another level of supervision or management intervention. Under no circumstances should a manager fire an employee on his or her own. Even the most egregious infractions should be dealt with according to proper procedures.

4. Understand and Administer Corporate Policy. Every organization should maintain and distribute a print or digital format corporate handbook. The policies outlined in that document are the blueprint to how your organization is run, and the handbook itself can become a legal piece of evidence in the case of a lawsuit where an employee claims that he or she has been treated unfairly.

5. Display Fairness, Approachability, Accountability. These personal attributes will go a long way toward both managing effectively and building goodwill among employees. This is particularly true when an employee has a complaint or issue, or when something goes wrong. No matter how busy a manager may be with other responsibilities, he or she must make time to listen and work with employees who have complaints or problems. Similarly, when mistakes are made, a strong manager will take responsibility for his or her part in the situation when appropriate, rather than deflect blame onto those employees under the manager’s supervision.

Remember, there is no magic formula for perfect management, and no guarantee that your company won’t become the target of an employee lawsuit. But taking time to help your managers cover these bases will go a long way toward protecting your company and your future.

10 Fun Facts About Payroll

Image result for fun business ownersThis week, businesses everywhere are re-evaluating their Payroll and HR providers or making the decision to outsource. While technology has made it easier than ever for HR teams to pay their employees, crunching the numbers can still be a laborious task for payroll professionals. Execupay offers you your own personal Payroll team to help you however you need it. Want to look into how to switch to Execupay and evaluate pricing? Head here.

To help you celebrate, we’ve rounded up 10 fun facts about payroll.

Fact 1: National Payroll Week was founded by The American Payroll Association in 1996. It is designed to celebrate the partnership between America’s workers, companies, payroll professionals, and government aid programs such as social security and Medicare. The weeklong event even has its own theme song.

Fact 2: President Roosevelt raised the top tax rate to 79 percent for Americans making over $5 million in 1935, but it only applied to one person at that time—John D. Rockefeller.

Fact 3: The Payday candy bar was invented in 1932. At first, the inventors didn’t know what to call their new creation. It happened to be payday, so one of them suggested they call it a Payday bar—and the rest is history!

Fact 4: The most common pay frequency in the U.S. is biweekly, which is used by 37 percent of private businesses. Surprisingly, weekly beats semimonthly as a runner-up at 32 percent.

Fact 5: 78.2 million workers in the U.S. are hourly employees. This represents nearly 60 percent of all wage and salary workers.

Fact 6: According to ancient “paystubs,” employees in Egypt and Mesopotamia used to be paid in beer and other commodities.

Fact 7: Many employees still receive paper checks, largely because around 20 percent of U.S. households are “unbanked” or “underbanked,” meaning they either don’t own or don’t regularly use a checking or savings account.

Fact 8: The first employee time clock was built by Willard Legrand Bundy and was patented in 1891. At the time, it was dubbed the the “Workman’s Time Recorder.” You can actually view the original patent illustrations here.

Fact 9: In the 1890s, American was deeply divided over whether the nation should support its currency with gold (supporters were known as “gold bugs”) or with gold and silver (“silverites”). This question became a deciding factor in the 1896 presidential election. Ultimately, the gold bugs triumphed with the election of William McKinley.

Fact 10: The President of the United States earns an annual salary of $400,000 during his or her term, and an annual pension of about $200,000 after leaving office.

These are just a few interesting facts about Payroll and it’s history. Make your former Payroll Provider history and switch to us. You can learn more about how Execupay helps build, pay, manage, and retain your team at the link here.

The Nitty Gritty: Holiday Pay and Time Off

Today, we’re going to take a quick look at one of the most confusing topics in HR and benefits management: holiday pay and time off.

If it’s been awhile since you’ve reviewed your company’s policy regarding time off and holiday pay, you should set aside some time to do so to make sure your policy and practices are up-to-date and in compliance with both federal and state law. In the meantime, here are some quick answers to pressing questions that can help you get started.

Many employers wonder if they’re required to provide time off for a holiday. Although not generally required by federal or state law, many employers choose to grant employees time off for certain holidays or to close the business altogether on those days.

However, keep in mind that companies with 15 or more employees are subject to federal religious discrimination laws, and may need to allow employees time off for religious observance. You should also consult your state’s nondiscrimination laws, because some states provide similar protections for employees of even smaller companies.

Now, let’s look at pay. Again, federal law and most state laws do not require employers to pay employees if time off for holidays is granted. Whether or not employees are paid for holidays is generally a matter of company policy. However, you need to be careful when it comes to exempt employees. As a general rule, if an exempt employee performs any work during a workweek, he or she must be paid the full salary amount.

When an employee works on a holiday, granting extra compensation…above and beyond the regular rate of pay…is generally a matter of company policy. Of course, you must be sure to comply with any specific state law requirements regarding holiday pay. Although some companies pay employees at a special rate, such as time-and-a-half, for holiday shifts, generally an employee is only entitled to his or her regular pay, plus any overtime.

Remember that states will generally enforce an employer’s written policy regarding holiday pay, so it’s important to follow company policy and to apply the rules consistently and fairly to all employees. For questions about the specific requirements in your state, contact your state labor department or a knowledgeable employment law attorney.

5 Tips for a Successful Holiday Party

At many companies, the annual office holiday party is a time-honored tradition. Whether it’s big or small, lavish or simple, your holiday party is more than just an end-of-year celebration. It’s a great opportunity to gather your employee for recreation, motivation, team building, and recognition. Indeed, your company party can shape both your reputation and corporate culture–and it doesn’t need to break the bank. With careful planning, you can throw a memorable event even on a limited budget.

Making your company holiday party a success comes down to a few simple steps:

First, plan early and communicate the date and time to your employees. You likely want to avoid the latter half of December, when many employees take unused vacation time or have family plans. Bypassing the end of the month also helps accommodate any sales or reporting deadlines, and may make it easier for out-of-town employees to attend. Be sure to consider the travel requirements of any off-site employees as you’re scheduling. You might also check with relevant managers and department heads to see if they’d like to fold in meetings or training for out-of-area employees to capitalize on their time in the home office. Other things to consider, depending on your budget and wishes, are a day vs. nighttime event, whether you’ll host on- or off-site, and whether your party will be limited to employees only or will include spouses, significant others, or family.

Next, get creative. You need not be confined by the traditional cocktail event or sit-down dinner. Think about hosting your party at a museum, or take a “field trip” to a popular concert or show. Hire a local chef to host a mini cooking class for your team, or engage a stand-up comic to perform during the meal. Alternatively, you might opt for a family event such as a bowling party or a make-your-own pizza outing at a local restaurant. If families are in the mix, have plenty of kid-friendly activities such as crafts, face painting, or cookie decorating on hand. And don’t forget the photo ops, with a dedicated photographer on-site or a photo booth stocked with colorful props. While the possibilities are endless, a simple gathering also works–a team that typically toils at their desks through the lunch hour will appreciate being taken out for a leisurely meal at a nice restaurant.

Third, make time for team building. Having your employees together is a great time to engage in a few fun activities that foster teamwork and bonding. You can divide guests into groups for a short trivia competition; play some party or ice-breaker games; and award small gift cards or other prizes (such as a preferred parking spot) to the winners. Some companies choose to award bonuses or gifts in conjunction with the holiday party, but even without these, the holiday party is an ideal time to recognize your employees and personally thank them for their dedication and hard work.

Also remember to focus on food and fun. Whether it’s formal or casual, make sure your party is one you personally would want to attend. In every case, this means making sure you have enough food and drink, with a variety of options to accommodate dietary restrictions and potential allergies. Depending on your venue, music can also add to your event. If space and budget allow, set up a dance floor and hire a professional DJ to keep the party moving.

Lastly, serve alcohol safely. If you want to minimize the chance of over-consumption, skip the traditional open bar. Instead, provide a limited number of cocktail tickets then move to a cash bar. You can also offer only beer and wine, which have lower alcohol contents. Of course, you should also be sure to offer a nice variety of non-alcoholic drink options, and stop serving alcohol at least an hour before the party ends. Finally, whether the party is at the office or off premises, provide alternative transportation home via a cab or car service to anyone who has had too much to drink to help minimize your liability in the event of an accident.

For any HR questions, head over to our home page and submit an information request!

3 Tax Recordkeeping Tips for Employers

You may not give much thought to doing your taxes outside of tax season, but some of the expenses you pay during the year might qualify for money-saving tax credits or deductions come tax time. If you organize your tax records now, you’ll make tax filing easier and faster when you do them next year. It also helps reduce the chance that you’ll lose a receipt or statement that you need.

1. Save Business Records

  • Gross receipts are the income you receive from your business. You should keep supporting documents that show the amounts and sources of your gross receipts.
  • Purchases are the items you buy and resell to customers. Your supporting documents should show the amount paid and that the amount was for purchases.
  • Expenses are the costs you incur (other than purchases) to carry on your business. Your supporting documents should show the amount paid and that the amount was for a business expense.
  • Assets are the property, such as machinery and furniture, that you own and use in your business. You need records to compute the annual depreciation and the gain or loss when you sell the assets.

Such records may include cash register tapes, bank deposit slips, receipt books, and purchase and sales invoices. These records may also include credit card receipts, sales slips, canceled checks, account statements, and petty cash slips.

2. Keep Employment Tax Records

The following information should be available for IRS review:

  • Your employer identification number;
  • Amounts and dates of all wage, annuity, and pension payments;
  • Amounts of tips reported;
  • The fair market value of in-kind wages paid;
  • Names, addresses, social security numbers, and occupations of employees and recipients;
  • Any employee copies of Form W-2 that were returned to you as undeliverable;
  • Dates of employment;
  • Periods for which employees and recipients were paid while absent due to sickness or injury and the amount and weekly rate of payments you or third-party payers made to them;
  • Copies of employees’ and recipients’ income tax withholding allowance certificates;
  • Dates and amounts of tax deposits you made;
  • Copies of returns filed;
  • Records of allocated tips; and
  • Records of fringe benefits provided, including substantiation.

3. Store and Organize Your Records

Business owners should generally keep all employment-related tax records for at least 4 years after the tax is due, or after the tax is paid, whichever is later. The length of time you should keep other documents depends on the action, expense, or event the document records.

The IRS doesn’t require any special method to keep records, but it’s a good idea to keep them organized and in one place. This will make it easier for you to prepare and file a complete and accurate return. You’ll also be better able to respond if there are questions about your tax return after you file.

Business owners should review IRS Publication 583Starting a Business and Keeping Records. Video and audio files explaining recordkeeping requirements are also available at http://www.irsvideos.gov/.

Are You Accommodating Your Religious or Disabled Employees?

In the modern workplace, we are fortunate to embrace diversity in many forms. In all likelihood, your company or organization employs individuals of many different backgrounds and abilities. At times, these differences may require what is known as an accommodation–a change in the work environment (or in the way things are usually done) that enables an employee to perform the duties of his or her job while respecting the employee’s disability or religious beliefs or practices.

Accommodating an individual with a disability or a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance is more than just good management; it’s the law. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, protects qualified individuals with disabilities from discrimination by employers with 15 or more employees in all aspects of employment, including hiring, firing, promotions, pay, and benefits. It also requires covered employers to provide reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability, unless that accommodation would result in undue hardship to the employer’s operations. Small employers may be subject to similar requirements under state law, so be sure to familiarize yourself with any state-specific nondiscrimination laws that may apply.

Also on the federal level, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in the workplace by employers with 15 or more employees on the basis of an individual’s religion (or lack of religious belief), and requires covered employers to reasonably accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance conflicts with a work requirement, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the business. Again, it is important to comply with any state-specific religious nondiscrimination laws that may apply to smaller employers.

Let’s talk for a moment about the term “reasonable accommodation.” According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency responsible for enforcing the ADA and Title VII, a modification or adjustment is reasonable if it appears to be “feasible” or “plausible.” An accommodation also must be effective in enabling the individual to perform the essential functions of the job and to enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment.

Under the ADA, reasonable accommodations for a disability may include such things as making existing facilities accessible; job restructuring; part-time or modified work schedules; acquiring or modifying equipment; changing tests, training materials, or policies; providing qualified readers or interpreters; and reassignment to a vacant position. This can include such things as assisted reading devices for employees with low vision; stools or seating for employees who become fatigued; or installation of TTY devices for the hearing impaired.

Reasonable accommodations for religious practice might include allowing flexible schedules to enable religious observance; changing an employee’s job tasks if a particular belief conflicts with a task; making exceptions to dress and grooming rules; allowing the use of work facilities for religious observances; and accommodating religious expression in the workplace.

Now let’s discuss the phrase “undue hardship.” The EEOC applies a different standard for undue hardship under the ADA than for religious accommodation. In general, for disability accommodations, undue hardship means significant difficulty or expense. Undue hardship refers not only to financial difficulty, but to reasonable accommodations that are unduly extensive, substantial, or disruptive, or those that would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business. An employer must assess on a case-by-case basis whether a particular reasonable accommodation would cause undue hardship.

Under Title VII, the undue hardship defense to providing religious accommodation requires a showing that the proposed accommodation in a particular case poses a “more than de minimis” cost or burden. Costs to be considered include not only direct monetary costs but also the burden on the conduct of the employer’s business. For example, courts have found undue hardship where the accommodation diminishes efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees’ job rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety, or causes co-workers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.

While each case is unique, employees may request an ADA or religious accommodation at any time during the employment process. No special language is needed, and the request need not be in writing–a conversation will suffice. The manager or employer should respond promptly, and engage the employee in an informal dialogue where the needs and request are discussed. In certain instances the employer may need to request more information from the employee, such as details about religious observances or reasonable documentation when the employee’s disability or the need for accommodation is not obvious.

In most cases, from both a legal and managerial standpoint, it is well worth an employer’s effort to attempt to accommodate an employee, as most accommodations are low-cost and yield considerable benefits. In fact, according to the Job Accommodation Network, more than half of all accommodations for disability cost nothing, and of those that do cost money, the typical one-time expenditure is $500.

How to Deny a Time Off Request

Whether paid or unpaid, time off is an important respite that allows your employees to take vacations; attend to personal or family business; or simply rest and recharge. However, managers and employees alike must recognize that not every request for time off can be approved. Of course, most managers would like to accommodate their employees, but some businesses demand coverage during typical holiday or vacation periods. There may also be specific times during the year—for example, the end of quarters or fiscal periods—when a company needs to be fully staffed.

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Communicate Attendance Policy to Employees

These expectations should be clearly spelled out in your attendance policy, together with the amount of sick, personal, and vacation time allotted to employees and procedures for taking that time, including any time off that may be required by federal or state law. Clarify how far in advance employees must notify their supervisors of their intention to take time off, and whether those requests will be approved based on corporate or departmental needs. For example, even if your office closes early on Friday afternoons in the summer, you will likely still need someone on site to answer phones, accept deliveries, and respond to client emergencies.

Your time off policy should be articulated in both the employee handbook as well as on the company’s internal web site, or intranet, if one exists. You should also communicate in writing any variances to the time off policy that apply to specific departments or positions. When hired, employees should sign a written acknowledgement that they have received and read the handbook, to be placed in the individual employee’s personnel file.

Comply with Federal and State Law

When considering whether to grant an employee’s time off request, it is necessary to comply with applicable federal and state laws regarding time off and nondiscrimination. For example, employers covered by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, must provide eligible employees with unpaid leave for specified family and medical reasons, including certain family military leave entitlements. The FMLA provides specific procedures and notice requirements for both employers and employees when it comes to requests for time off.

For employers covered by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, permitting the use of accrued paid leave, or unpaid leave, is a form of reasonable accommodation when necessitated by an employee’s disability. In general, the ADA requires that covered employers make reasonable accommodation to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability, unless the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship. An employer does not have to provide paid leave beyond that which is provided to similarly-situated employees.

Certain employers may also need to grant time off requests in order to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices, as required under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In addition to federal requirements, many states and cities also have laws requiring that certain employers allow employees to be absent from work, either with or without pay, due to specified circumstances. These laws may grant employees expanded or additional rights above the federal requirements, or they may be preempted by the federal law. As a result, employers in certain instances may be required to comply with only the federal law, only the state law, or both. If there is any question as to which law applies to a particular employer or situation, the employer should contact a knowledgeable employment law attorney or contact its state labor department for specific guidance.

Examples of state-specific laws regarding time off include family and medical leave; paid or unpaid sick leave; disability and other nondiscrimination laws; military leave; jury duty, crime, and witness leaves; leave to donate organs or blood; and leave to participate in school or day care activities for an employee’s children.

As you manage your employees’ requests for time off, also consider whether a flexible work option might be a good fit for your company. Flexible work hours can minimize inconvenient time off requests, and help managers plan for extra coverage during busy times. Upfront communication about expectations and schedules is key to making flexible arrangements work.

If Leave Must Be Denied

Time off requests must still on occasion be denied. If you are in that position, be empathetic and fair. Have your conversation with the employee in private, not in front of peers or colleagues. If appropriate, explain your reasons for denying the request. Listen to the employee’s needs and concerns, and attempt to find a resolution that works for the employee, the department, and the organization. Finally, remember to follow all applicable laws, and apply those laws and your company policies consistently and fairly among all employees.