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View from HR: A workplace that is run by the legal mandates is hard on everyone

We answer about 9,000 employer phone calls each year on all manner of workplace issues and problems. Most employers seek to understand their options, then to do the right thing in a cost-effective way.

But we do get calls where they just want to know: “What are we required to do?” You can almost feel the boss standing over the caller’s shoulder to be sure and get the bottom-line answer.

Most of the time, employers who ask these “have to” questions fear employees will take advantage of more generous policies. True, a small percentage of employees are policy cheaters, exaggerators and abusers of any weakness they can spot. But what about the vast majority?

Gaps in the law

A workplace that is run by the legal mandates is hard on everyone. It would be like expecting a chicken dinner and receiving a vacuum-packed military MRE. It is poultry and it is safe … it is the minimum … but no one will enjoy the meal!

As an example, we start getting calls about inclement weather rules in December. Do we have to pay people if we close, or if they cannot get to work, or if they are just afraid to drive, or if they work from home? Can we force people to come to work? Can we discipline people who miss work?

Thankfully, the law does not speak to or mandate everything (yet). Most decisions are left to the employer. No law requires a comfortable chair, coffee in the break room, a pleasant morning greeting, a “thank you” for work well done, competitive pay, on-the-job learning, a good mentor or clear goals.

In the case of inclement weather, there are few legal rules. All employees must be paid for time worked, including any work from home, and all “salaried exempt” employees must be paid if the employer closes. Not much else is prescribed, and, yes, people can be “required” to come to work.

Personal hardships

Sometimes 100 percent attendance is important. No doubt. Still, too many employees in noncritical roles are ill-prepared to drive in deep snow or thin ice, or the risk-reward ratio is way out of whack. Conditions vary all over the region. Family issues vary. Public transportation may be shut down.

There is no single best inclement weather policy. Some employers say, “Do the right thing for your family and safety, do what you can to complete your work, and we will do our part by paying you while you are out.” Might a small number cheat and make snow drinks with their friends? Sure, but might the rest truly appreciate and reward your trust?

If you truly, absolutely, no-excuses must have key employees show up, what is your part in helping that to happen? Company vehicles with chains and four wheel drive? Do you pay enough to mandate access to all-weather transportation?

When we decide to mandate the minimum required labor law standards despite the risk and personal hardship it creates for employees, we cannot expect them to bring their maximum to work.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 North Carolina employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit