Friday's Five: Five legal pitfalls startup companies cannot make

1. Classifying all employees as independent contractors
To qualify as an independent contractor, the employer has the burden of proof to establish that the worker is actually an independent contractor and not an employee. I’ve discussed the parameter of this “economic realities” test here.  In addition to owing unpaid minimum wages and potential unpaid overtime, the employer also faces steep penalties for misclassifying independent contractors.

2. Treating all employees as exempt employees and not paying overtime.
An employee cannot agree to work without being paid overtime unless they qualify as an exempt employee. To qualify as an exempt employee, generally, the employee must perform certain duties, and must be paid a certain threshold in wages (usually at least two times the equivalent pay of minimum wage based on a 40 hour week).  

3. Not having a handbook and written policies.
Even if startup companies have no money, the Labor Code still applies. They still have to pay more than minimum wage, provide and record meal and rest breaks, issue wage notices to new employees, and otherwise comply with California law. A handbook, new hire packet, and standardized set of written policies is a good place to start.

4. Not providing clear offer letter with at-will provisions and clear understanding of who owns social media accounts and passwords.
Companies should providing a writing setting forth the employee’s compensation, stock option rights, at-will status, as well as who owns the rights to social media accounts and the passwords to access the accounts. Much better to have this set out early in order to avoid costly litigation and disruption in your business later.

5. Not having the right employment law counsel.
Startup owners should have a relationship with an attorney that actually practices California employment law. Have an agreement with them that for basic quick questions there will be little if no charge. I often tell my clients that if it takes a quick phone call to review a decision about an employment issue, there will be no charge. Of course this has to be within reason, as your lawyer sells his or her time to make a living.  So to make this easier on your lawyer, do the work before you call, and just double check that the decision you have made, or the letter you drafted is good-to-go. Otherwise, calling your lawyer and asking him to draft the letter will take him time (usually more time that the client could have done it in) and will increase the cost of legal services.

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Everything Employers Need To Know About Social Media In the Workplace In 2013

I will be conducting a webinar on January 15, 2013 on legal issues of social media in the workplace. The presentation will cover everything a California employer needs to know about social media in the modern workplace of 2013:

  • Discussion on the new law (Labor Code section 960) that prohibits employers from asking applicants and employees for their social media passwords taking effect on January 1, 2013.
  • How to avoid invading employees’ privacy rights when using social media for background checks.
  • Developments on how the NLRB held that some social media policies restrict an employee’s right to “engage in concerted activities.”
  • How to use the Internet to properly conduct a background check for applicant.
  • Discussion on whether your company needs a social media policy.
  • Evaluating whether an employer may be held liable for failing to use social media and the Internet to conduct a background check.
  • Alternatives to social media policies.

The cost is $150 (this is waived for clients). You may register below, or send me an email if you are a client.

This webinar has been preapproved by HRCI for 1 recertification credit hour. 

"The use of this seal is not an endorsement by the HR Certification Institute of the quality of the program. It means that this program has met the HR Certification Institute's criteria to be pre-approved for recertification credit."

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Inside Litigation Over Social Media Accounts - Why Employers Should Have Social Media Policies - Part I

As previously written about on this blog, the case PhoneDog v. Kravtiz is one of the first cases in the country to deal with substantive ownership issues arising out of social media accounts used in the workplace. As companies are moving more and more away from traditional marketing and advertising towards the use of social media, it is critical that companies have an agreement with employees about a few key items regarding social media accounts, such as ownership of the social media accounts.

On the other hand, the rise social media has given individuals the ability to create a brand for themselves and establish a large following for their expertise. These individuals are hired by companies not only for their expertise on the subject matter, but also for the large group of followers they developed via social media. The followers the individuals have through Twitter, Facebook or a blog is a valuable advertising and marketing resource for a company that wishes to gain the follower’s attention. Because of this shift from traditional advertising and PR, employers and employees have to be vigilant in approaching this issue given the potentially large value social media contacts can now have in the marketplace. An employee being hired who agrees to use their social media accounts to promote the company’s business should also clearly set out at least a few issues in a written agreement.

For example, a social media agreement between and employer and employee could address at the following issues:

  • Ownership of the employee’s social media accounts that will be used for business purposes. Clearly spell out who owns the accounts (or license to use the accounts).
  • Ownership and use of the company’s social media accounts. Who retains the right to change the passwords? Who retains the right to edit and approve content? What is the process to approve content prior to publishing?
  • Any restrictive terms of use of the employee’s social media accounts during employment. For example, does the employer have the right to edit and review the content prior to publication?
  • What control, if any, the company will have after the termination of the employment relationship over the employee’s or the company’s social media accounts. Is there a time frame after employment that the employee cannot use his or her own social media accounts for competitive business uses? Employers need to be careful here, however, as limiting an employee’s use of their social media accounts may be tantamount to a prohibited non-competition agreement or in violation of other state laws. I expect that this will be another hot area of the law that will be addressed by the courts within the next few years.
  • It may also be useful to set a monetary value on the social media accounts. This is probably easier to negotiate among the parties prior to any dispute over the value should litigation arise later.

My next article, Part II of this series, will address what claims employers and employees would likely use during litigation over social media accounts.

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