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What Employers Can Learn From Legendary Coach John Wooden: Achievable, Basic Resolutions That Employers Should Keep in 2014

The legendary college basketball coach, John Wooden, famously taught his players on the first day of practice each year how to put their socks on correctly. Wooden believed first and foremost that elite basketball players needed healthy feet and that “sock instruction” was necessary to prevent blisters. Wooden’s record of excellence (10 national championships in 12 years) was predicated upon his belief that mastering the basics was absolutely crucial to success. The beauty of Coach Wooden’s success was the simplicity and consistently of his principles. With a nod then to arguably the greatest coach in any sport, below are six achievable “basics” for employers that want to improve hiring, retention and the bottom line:

  1. Revise the Employee Handbook. In 2013, the employment law landscape changed for employers as a result of legislative enactments, new decisions issued by state and federal courts, and agency directives and guidance. For example, legislative changes in Maryland require employers with the requisite numbers of employees to have policies concerning reasonable accommodations for disabilities due to pregnancy and military deployment leave. New guidance issued by the National Labor Relations Board sheds light on the restrictions that employers can place on employees who use social media. Bottom Line: Employees need to update handbooks, among other things, to create or revise anti-discrimination/harassment policies, confidentiality policies, social media policies, computer usage policies, and anti-violence policies.
  2. Update job descriptions. If employers need a reason to create or update job descriptions, the alarming increase in wage/hour claims provides ample justification. Job descriptions help employers prevent wage/hour claims by forcing them to focus on the actual job duties performed by the employees and whether those duties render an employee exempt from overtime. Job descriptions also help employers to prevent and defend disability claims. Fundamentally, they can be critically important in assisting employers to properly align the expectations of employees. The disconnect between employee expectations and employers is at the core of many, if not most, employment claims. Bottom Line: Creating and revising job descriptions is essential for employers to minimize the risk of employment claims.
  3. Conduct manager training. One of the worst kept secrets in the work place is that mid-level managers and, for that matter, more senior level managers simply do not know how to manage effectively and, worse, in many instances are too embarrassed to seek assistance. The benefits of training managers, preferably through experienced employment counsel, as to how and why their acts and omissions create unnecessary problems and legal exposures are significant. For example, effective training can result in mid-level managers learning (i) how they should handle complaints of improper treatment or harassment; (ii) how failing to provide thorough and accurate performance evaluations for the employees they supervise can create confusion in job expectations and, worse, legal exposure; and (iii) why failing to effectively communicate with senior executives and the human resources department is a prescription for legal and other problems. Bottom Line: Smart CEOs and their advisors understand that manager training is not and never has been an expensive luxury, but rather is a significant ingredient to creating a more functional workplace.
  4. Prepare a new set of interview and reference questions. Employees typically succeed or fail in an organization because they possess, or as the case may be, do not possess the emotional competencies that are necessary in a particular organization. They do not fail as a general manner because they lack sufficient IQ. Is it that simple? Well, almost. Yet, employers routinely fail to ask the kind of probing questions of applicants, as well as of their identified references, that elicit whether the individual possesses the requisite emotional competencies. Bottom Line: Employers and business advisors need to undertake a critical analysis of why employees succeed or fail in their organizations and then craft interview and reference questions to determine whether the individuals that they are considering to hire possess the requisite “success characteristics.”
  5. Seek advice early. Most patients, myself included, routinely wait too long to call their doctors. In many instances, we pay for “self-medicating” through longer and unpleasant illnesses that likely could have been treated effectively much earlier. The simple truth is that many employment claims can be addressed, if not in fact, resolved more cheaply and effectively if experienced employment counsel are contacted earlier in the process. Bottom Line: “Self-medicating” can be dangerous to your organization’s health and is often quite expensive.
  6. Conduct in-person anti-harassment training. Retaliation and discrimination claims continue to be filed at alarming rates. Almost as distressing for employers is the fact that judicial decisions applying the applicable standards are all over the map. In person training should be conducted for nearly all employers at least every 18 months. The Supreme Court has held that employers have an affirmative obligation to take appropriate measures to prevent the filing of discrimination and harassment claims, and to take appropriate measures to address such claims once they have been filed. Bottom Line: What constitutes unlawful discrimination or harassment is often difficult to determine. Although online harassment and training programs may convey certain of the basics, there is no substitute for in person anti-harassment training by an experienced professional.

Smart CEOs and their business advisors understand that the readily achievable measures outlined above will help prevent employment claims from being filed in the first instance; will better position employers to defend such claims if they are filed; and will provide diligent employers with a competitive advantage and a “winning” formula.

Happy New Year!

Marc Engel is an employment attorney and litigator at Lerch, Early & Brewer who advises employers of all types of employment issues, performs human resource audits, and conducts training on a variety of employment issues, including strategies for improving hiring, performance management, retention, and avoiding discrimination and harassment claims. For more information on successful employment resolutions for the new year, contact Marc at (301) 657-0184 or


This content is for your information only and is not intended to constitute legal advice. Please consult your attorney before acting on any information contained here.


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