Part One: HR Basics for Small Businesses #hrbasics

Blogging4Jobs is bringing you a special two-week series on basics in the workplace. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or new practitioner, learn about the basics of your job. It’s information we all need to know. 

Small businesses often have an HR department of one, or HR is one of many responsibilities of an office manager or business owner. Understanding all the applicable employment laws may seem overwhelming to a person in this position. In this post we will look at some of the key things small businesses need to consider when approaching HR.

Employee Handbook

Even when a business has only a few employees, setting up good HR practices is important. This requires clear policies, so employees know what is expected of them. When there is no employee handbook in place, you may be disciplining or terminating an employee who says, “Nobody told me I couldn’t do that.”

Have all employees sign an acknowledgement saying that they received the employee handbook and understand the policies. This way you have proof that an employee was notified of your policies, so it makes it a bit difficult for them to say, “Nobody told me…” There is no law requiring an employee handbook, but, for this reason, having your policies in writing may provide you with some legal protection.

Your handbook should include your EEOC statement about not discriminating on the basis of protected classes as well as your policy against harassment. Examples of polices that should be in your handbook include at-will employment, attendance, leaves of absence, safety, security, disciplinary action, overtime and standards of conduct.

If you are starting from scratch on creating an employee handbook, it is best to work with an HR professional or attorney to ensure you are including the policies relevant to your business. There is also software that helps you create an employee handbook, but make sure you are including specific state requirements and tailoring policies to your business.

Be sure to review your handbook on a regular basis and make relevant updates. Attending an annual labor law briefing by an employment attorney is a good way to stay up-to-date on developments in employment law.

Meal Breaks

As I mentioned in a previous post, federal law does not require meal breaks; however, many states have specific requirements. I live and work in California, and I provide HR support to small businesses in here. We have some strict requirements about how and when meal breaks must be taken.

In April 2012, the California Supreme Court issued the infamous Brinker decision, which clarified that employers must provide a meal break to employees, but they need not ensure employees take their break. The key to making sure you provide a meal break is to have a good policy and to then communicate that policy to your employees in your handbook. I find that a lot of California employees do not understand the state’s requirements. This is often due to past employers who did not have a meal break policy in compliance with state requirements. Discussing your policy directly with employees can clear up the misconceptions, and it also shows that you value your employees’ right to take a meal break.

The Department of Labor has a useful map that shows meal break requirements by state, which is helpful in drafting your own policy.

Employee File Management

When I worked at medium-sized companies, we had very organized systems for managing employee files. Medical information was stored in separate files, and you would never find an I-9 in the main file. Now that I work with small businesses, I have found that it is not uncommon for small businesses to put all HR paperwork in one folder.

As I mentioned in a previous post on managing employee files, you should have a main file and a medical file for each employee. The main file contains most HR paperwork, and the medical file contains doctor’s notes, insurance forms and any other paperwork containing confidential medical information. Form I-9 needs to be stored separately, so it can be useful to keep a binder with all the forms for your business. Investigation notes and any other paperwork with protected information should be kept out of the main file.

HR may seem scary to those who have not worked in HR before. There are a lot of laws to navigate, and it can be a challenge to know how to apply policies to real employee situations. Laying a good HR foundation with clear policies and good files is a start. In next week’s post, I will look at the importance of good documentation and why small businesses need to have good hiring practices in place.

HR Basics for Small Businesses

What are some of the challenges your small business faces when it comes to HR basics?

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Stephanie Hammerwold

Stephanie Hammerwold, is the founder and director of Pacific Reentry Career Services, a Southern California nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated women find and maintain employment. She also blogs on a variety of HR topics as the HR Hammer. When not volunteering for her nonprofit, Stephanie has a day job in HR at a tech startup in Irvine, CA.


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