You are running a small business, and you have a few HR questions. Likelihoods are that another small business has, had, or will have a similar question in the future. Wouldn’t it be nice if only one person had to ask, and you could hear the answers to their questions?

Through all of our years working with small businesses, we have been asked for quite a bit of advice when it comes to HR and noticed a pattern of frequently asked questions. We have even dealt with some HR lawsuits that could have easily been avoided. On this page, we share our experiences and solutions with you, so you get a chance to review answers to similar questions you may have. The best part: these are questions we’ve received from actual clients!

Keep scrolling to see the various HR advice we’ve offered to small businesses in California.

* Please keep in mind, the advice below is for a specific scenario and specific company. As California small business attorneys, we always recommend consulting with the appropriate professional about your specific HR questions.

Terminating an Employee

Question: If an employee puts in their notice, can we let them go that day instead of keeping them for the full notice period?

Unless there is a contract or agreement to the contrary, employers are under no obligation to keep an employee on during their resignation notice period or to provide them with compensation for the duration of that period. However, there are a couple of issues to consider before accepting an employee’s resignation early.

First, if you ask the employee not to work the remainder of the notice period and do not pay them for that time, the resignation may become an involuntary termination in the eyes of the state’s unemployment insurance department. Note that the effect of a single claim on your UI tax rate is likely to be small to non-existent. However, if you’re concerned about that, you can pay the employee for the full notice period, but ask them not to come into work.

Second, terminating the employee before their resignation period comes to an end could motivate other employees to forego giving adequate notice in the event they resign. By terminating an employee immediately, rather than letting them earn two more weeks of pay, you’re effectively telling other employees that you don’t honor notice periods. As a result, they may not see the point in giving you that courtesy.

Ultimately, the choice to terminate early – with or without pay – is up to your discretion. There are certainly good reasons to ask an employee not to return to the office once they have offered you notice. Just keep in mind that there may be other reasons to go ahead and pay them for their notice period, even if you don’t want them to continue to work.

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Question: What is the purpose of a performance improvement plan? Can’t we just terminate employment for poor performance?

The use of a performance improvement plan (PIP) can help reduce the risk inherent in any termination. A PIP is used to help employees whose performance has slipped, become inconsistent, or otherwise needs improvement.

It’s safest to terminate an employee when you have documentation that justifies the legitimate business reasons for the termination. If you’re terminating for poor performance, this documentation should include past warnings for poor performance, explanations of the consequences for the employee if they didn’t improve, and evidence that the employee failed to do so.

A great way to do all this is with a PIP, which specifies your expectations for employee performance, defines what success looks like going forward, sets regular meetings with the employee to discuss their progress, and explains the consequences for failing to meet and sustain improved performance within an established timeframe.

If the employee continues to underperform or fails to sustain improved performance, you may need to move on to termination. If you’ve been using a PIP, you will have the documentation to demonstrate that you gave them a chance to improve. This record will make it more difficult for the employee to challenge the reason for a termination.

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Investigating Employees

Question: We have good reason to suspect an employee has been stealing from the register. How should we respond?

I would recommend suspending this employee and conducting an internal investigation. You may also want to report the theft to law enforcement depending on the circumstances.

An internal investigation generally includes interviewing any employee who may be involved and any potential witnesses about what they saw . You’re looking for firsthand knowledge, not rumors or speculation. If you have video surveillance, it should be included in your investigation file. Even if the accused employee fails to cooperate, you should still investigate as best you can and document your good faith efforts.

During the interviews, ask the employees for general information about what they know or what they saw. Formulating questions in advance helps ensure that your investigation remains unbiased and open-ended. When interviewing co-workers, be sure not to disclose which employee you suspect of stealing.

These interviews should be confidential to the extent reasonable and conducted in a discreet manner. It’s also good to have a manager or HR Representative in the interviews to serve as a third-party witness and take detailed notes. This documentation may prove helpful if the company is ever challenged regarding this situation and its outcome.

If the results of the investigation reveal that an employee did in fact engage in theft, you may opt to terminate the employee.

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Question: Do we need to investigate rumors of harassment even if no one has made a complaint?

Yes, I recommend you investigate. A company always has some inherent liability in relation to discriminatory or harassing comments or behavior. The level of liability usually correlates to the nature, severity, and context of the comments, the position of the employee who made them, and what the employer does or does not do about it.

Since you have knowledge of a potential situation, I recommend you investigate the matter and take appropriate disciplinary action if it turns out your anti-harassment policy was violated. As you conduct the investigation, document the discussions you have as well as your findings, and reassure those you interview that their participation will not result in retaliation.

If you need additional guidance on conducting an investigation of this type, You may want to consider joining our HR Support Center Program.

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FMLA

Question: How do we calculate whether we’re covered under FMLA?

To be covered under FMLA, private sector employers need to employ 50 or more employees for at least 20 calendar workweeks in the current or preceding calendar year. The 20 calendar workweeks do not need to be consecutive.

When counting your employees, you would include any employee whose name appears on your payroll any working day of calendar week, regardless of whether they received compensation for the week.

Once your organization meets the 50 employees-for-20 workweeks threshold, it remains covered until it reaches a point at which it no longer employed 50 employees for 20 (non-consecutive) workweeks in the current and preceding calendar year.

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Question: An employee of ours has gone on FMLA leave to care for a family member, and she asked us via email to tell her co-workers the reason she’s taking time off. Is this okay?

In general, when an employee is out, I recommend informing coworkers only that the employee is on a leave of absence. The reasons for the leave are not any of the coworkers’ business, and the employee might not want the reasons known by others. Moreover, sick leave, family leave, and disability laws often specifically protect this information.

In this case, since this employee has specifically asked you to inform the other employees that she will be out on a “family care” leave, and you have this request from the employee in writing, you should be fine sharing this information. In the absence of any such written request from an employee, however, I would recommend defaulting to stating only that an employee is off work on a leave of absence, letting the employee share additional information at their discretion.

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Work Space Environment

Question: Can you provide guidance on what personal items are appropriate for display on employee work spaces?

We’d like workstations to look professional and organized, and we’re concerned that some currently displayed items (small toys, etc.) give the office an unprofessional and cluttered feel.

Employers typically decide what amount and type of personal items are appropriate based on the culture of the organization. In a workplace that needs to maintain a formal and professional image — perhaps because it has frequent visitors — the employer may want individual workspaces to look neat and tidy. Casual workplaces probably don’t need the same restrictions. Basically, it comes down to what you’re comfortable allowing.

Unless there is an ongoing problem with what employees are putting in their work areas, I recommend against having a specific policy on the matter. Flexibility is often best as it allows employees to be creative and make their workspaces their own. For what it’s worth, when there are things in the workplace to psychologically interact with (like plants, personal photos, and art), employees tend to be more productive and engaged.

Of course, you’d want to prohibit anything that is harassing, offensive, or causes a workplace distraction. These prohibitions, however, should already be covered in your code of conduct and harassment policies.

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Hiring an Employee

Question: We want to hire an administrative assistant. Can we classify this person as an independent contractor during a 90-day try-out period and then, if they work out, hire them as a full-time employee at the end of the 90 days?

The short answer is no.

It’s highly unlikely that an administrative assistant would meet the criteria for classification as an independent contractor. The IRS and the U.S. Department of Labor, along with state agencies, have specific criteria for determining who is an employee and who is an independent contractor. These criteria focus on the overall relationship workers have with their employer, with particular attention to who controls when, where, and how the job gets done, as well as who has the opportunity for financial profit or loss. Administrative assistants typically do not have that level of control over their work, so they’ll almost always be classified as employees.

I understand that you’d like to hire the individual on a trial basis, with the possibility of continued employment. You can do this by offering them temporary employment. During the 90-day period, make sure that you provide the employee with clear expectations for the position and success in the role. If you elect to end their employment once the 90 days are up, you should document why they are not being considered for continued employment.

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More Coming Soon!