Personnel e.bulletin – May 2012

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Prepared for the PHCC Educational Foundation by TPO, Inc.

Congratulations on your promotion to supervisor! You have demonstrated a set of technical job-related skills that qualified you to become a supervisor. In your new job as a supervisor you will oversee and guide the work of a team of people. But there’s more to it than that. As a supervisor, you are now charged with knowing and following a number of policies, procedures and regulations that are Human Resources related, “HR” for short. But what do we mean? What is “HR” anyway?

HR refers to a collection of activities related to the people of a company or organization. It involves managing people and the workplace and typically includes: recruiting and hiring, administering compensation and benefits, training, complying with regulations, and managing job performance and behavior in the workplace. When properly attended to, good HR practices enable employees to contribute at their highest level to achieve the business’s goals. Even if your company has a designated HR manager, “HR” is really a shared responsibilities that relies heavily on informed line supervisors aware of the key role they play in getting the work done effectively, safely, and to standards. This is true for all companies whether large or small.

As a supervisor, you need to know that along with “best practices” in HR, there are also several federal and state laws that govern certain workplace actions. To help protect yourself and your company, you need to learn about employment laws and your responsibilities as a supervisor to comply with these laws.

With a nod to David Letterman, this article offers a brief introduction to a top ten list of HR “rules” that all supervisors should know and heed. Drum roll please!

10. Know Your Company Policies. If it’s been a while since you’ve reviewed the employee handbook; now’s a good time. If your company doesn’t have a handbook, be sure you understand the practices of your company. Pay particular attention to policies regarding vacation and other paid or unpaid leave available to employees. You will also want to know how the company handles employees who are absent or late to work. The watch word here is “consistency.” Company policies need to be applied consistently to all employees. If you let one employee get away with coming in late, but come down hard on another employee, you could find yourself defending a discrimination claim.

9. Personal Information is “PERSONAL.” As a supervisor you will have access to, and may become aware of, personal information about your employees. You have both a legal and ethical responsibility to safeguard and keep confidential all personal information on your employees. This includes information that may make your employees vulnerable to identity theft such as social security numbers, names and addresses, driver’s license numbers, and banking information. It also includes protecting an employee’s privacy by not discussing their family issues or health information regardless of whether it is volunteered by the employee or disclosed on employment records such as insurance enrollment forms.

8. There Are Legal and “Illegal” Questions. If your role as supervisor includes interviewing candidates for employment or making promotion decisions, you need to know that there are certain questions and lines of inquiry that could give rise to a discrimination claim. No questions should be asked that would reveal a persons’ race, gender, religion, marital status, age, disabilities, ethnic background, country of origin, or age (“Are you married?”, “Any kids?”, “What do you do on the weekends?”). And depending your state, there will be other protected groups. For instance, in California an employer may not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and in the District of Columbia, employers are prohibited from making adverse employment decisions on the basis of political affiliation.

Sticking to job-related questions is your best bet. You may think a question is just a friendly attempt to establish rapport but you may inadvertently solicit personal information that is not job-related. For example, what’s wrong with asking someone where they are from? Seems like a polite question; we ask people that all the time in our everyday lives. True enough, but if the answer is, India, China, El Salvador or some other country, you have just set yourself up for a potential discrimination claim if you do not hire the candidate. They may think they were not hired because of their country of origin.

7.  Employees Have Rights. Whether there are Union employees in your company or not, all employees have certain rights under a variety of federal laws. You should be aware of these rights to be sure you do not violate them and expose your company and yourself to legal liabilities. The details of all the laws regarding employee rights are beyond the scope of this article, but in general they encompass employee rights related to job safety and health protection (OSHA), equal employment opportunities (EEO), overtime and minimum wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), collective bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), family and medical leave (FMLA) and polygraph protection.

A summary of U.S. labor laws can be found on the Department of Labor website at You should familiarize yourself with labor laws along with the Labor Law posting requirements that inform employees of their rights under U.S. laws (See In addition to federal employee rights laws, you also need to be aware of any state laws that cover employees. Visit website to learn about employee rights in your state.
6. Equal Employment is the Law of the Land. Equal employment laws apply to both applicants for jobs and current employees. These laws are at both the federal and state level. As a supervisor you are prohibited from making employment decisions based on race, color, religion, sex, age or national origin of the employee. These are known as “protected classes” under Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws.  Employment decision under EEO laws includes hiring and firing decisions along with, assignments, pay, training and promotions decisions. In practical terms, this means that if you only send your male employees for additional HVAC training or give the best work assignments to only one race, you could find yourself responding to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) based on an employee’s complaint.

5. Employees Deserve Feedback. Whether positive or constructive, your employees deserve to know when they are meeting expectations or performing below par. Too many supervisors and managers fail to give their employees feedback or they only give one kind of feedback. But research has shown that feedback, both motivational and formative, is most effective when given separately. To do their best, employees need both.

Motivational feedback is also described as “positive”. Tell your employees what he or she did well. This can reinforce good performance and increase the likelihood that it will be repeated. It can help your employee feel confident in their work.

Formative feedback is “constructive” as opposed to “negative”.  When you tell your employee what could be done better the next time, you are providing constructive feedback. This can help shape (construct) the performance you want to see and increase the likelihood of improvement in performance. Formative feedback is offered to build an employee’s competence in a work task.

You will be best served in your role as supervisor if you develop the habit of providing both types of feedback consistently. Be as specific as you can when providing feedback. Try to identity exactly what you liked or disliked about your employees work. “Good job!” is easy enough to say, but try breaking that down: “I really liked the way you took the extra time to move that stuff to get to the unit. You made it a much safer work area.” Your employee will know that you value safety and it’s worth a little extra effort to move obstacles.

4. It is Illegal to Hire “Illegals”. All employers, under federal law, are required to verify the identity and employment eligibility of all employees within three days of the date of hire. This verification is done by completing a I-9 form provided by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). As a supervisor, you may be asked, on behalf of your company, to examine the documents that must be presented by each new employee. These documents serve the purpose of verifying a person’s identity and eligibility to work in the United States. If an employee is not able to present acceptable documentation within three days of their date of hire, their employment must be terminated.
3. Hire Right, Fire Right. In spite of strong hiring practices, you may still be faced with a decision to terminate an employee’s employment. The goal of all terminations is to have the employee leave the company with dignity and without filing a lawsuit. Your first obligation is to confer with your manager to determine your company’s policies and practices regarding terminating employees. If you are in a union environment, you need to make sure you learn the details of the contract regarding terminating union employees. The union contract will most likely outline a number of actions required before a decision to terminate will we supported by the union. This may include showing evidence that you provided coaching, counseling, training and discipline in an attempt to address the issue before making the decision to terminate employment.

If your company is an “at-will” employer, your company is legally allowed to terminate employment with or without cause and with or without notice to the employee. However, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. It’s a good practice to follow the same kind of progressive path often found in union contracts. The courts like to see that you provided feedback (and warnings) to your employees and gave them a fair chance to improve.

Avoid saying the dreaded words, “You’re fired!” in the heat of the moment. Your employee may respond by filing a wrongful termination suit against you. Instead, check your company’s policies on suspending an employee and then take the time to investigate to get all the facts. Make sure the facts support your decision. Remember, “Fire in haste, repent in court!”

2. Employees Are People Too. Employees leave their jobs because of their bosses more than any other reason. As you face the people challenges inherit in any workplace, remember, it’s not just a tool box that comes to work every day – it’s a whole person. “He doesn’t respect me” is a phrase we hear all too often when an employee is asked about their boss. And no doubt, you want your employees to respect you also. But what does that mean? Do you share a common definition of respect in the workplace? At your next staff meeting, set aside some time to discuss the question, “What does it mean to show each other respect on the job?” First, listen and value the ideas and opinions of each person; acknowledge any concerns and challenges they may be facing; and, ask for suggestions on how you can help to address issues.

Establishing respect in the workplace is not only common sense and courteous, there are laws that regulate certain workplace conduct that you need to understand. As a supervisor you take on the added responsibility to ensure that you and your colleagues behave appropriately toward one another. Creating or allowing a hostile, intimidating or harassing environment can subject you to personal liability if a claim is made.  You must not look the other way if you know of or should have known that someone is being illegally harassed, intimidated or discriminated against. The work place is no place for a “boys will be boys” philosophy.

1. You Are the Company. Perhaps the most significant thing to know as a supervisor is that you are the Company. Your staff will view you as management and the courts may view you as the Employer.  This has significant implications. As a supervisor you may be held personally liable for what you do and what you fail to do on behalf of your employees. You may be held personally responsible for allowing an alleged discriminatory practice to occur, for contributing to it, or for ignoring it altogether. Remember too, that the supervisor is usually the bearer of bad news. You may be called upon to announce cut backs, reductions in hours or terminations. This can make you an easy target to be named in a wrongful employment action claim or lawsuit.

And it is not just discrimination laws. You may also be held liable for violating an employee’s rights by not properly paying wages, disallowing certain types of leave, failing to notify employees of their rights or interfering with an employee exercising their legal rights.

Personally liable means you can be held personally responsible in a civil action brought by an employee. As a supervisor, you may be a named party to a lawsuit or administrative action either individually or along with the owners or senior management of the company. If a judgment goes against you, you may be required to satisfy the judgment through your personal assets which could include your house, personal belongings, bank accounts, investments and other assets.

This article introduced you to the “people” part of your job as a supervisor. You are encouraged to take the steps to learn more about the concepts, laws and strategies discussed in this Top Ten list.  Learning more about and heeding these HR “rules” will go a long way toward making sure your experience as a supervisor is richly rewarding and not a pain in the pipes!


This content was developed for the PHCC Educational Foundation by TPO, Inc. ( Please consult your HR professional or attorney for further advice, as laws may differ in each state. Laws continue to evolve; the information presented is as of April 2012. Any omission or inclusion of incorrect data is unintentional.

The PHCC Educational Foundation, a partnership of contractors, manufacturers and wholesalers was founded in 1987 to serve the plumbing-heating-cooling industry by preparing contractors and their employees to meet the challenges of a constantly changing marketplace. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting the Foundation by making a gift at


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