California employers often ask me the question of what steps can they take to stop employment litigation. My response usually begins with a warning that there is nothing an employer can do that will prevent a frivolous lawsuit, but the employer should focus on what they can control.  Employers can only control their actions and decisions, and by thinking about and reviewing a few simple items at least once a quarter, it can greatly reduce a company’s liability. Here are five steps employer can start with (hint – the most important step in my opinion is listed last):

1. Implement accurate and easy to use timekeeping system.

California law requires employers to track start and stop times for hourly, non-exempt employees. The law also requires employer to track the start and stop times for the employee’s thirty minute meal periods. The time system needs to be accurate, and the employer needs to be involved in the installation and setup of the system. Do not simply use the default settings for the hardware and software. Understand what the system is tracking and how it is recording the data. Since the statute of limitations for California wage and hour violations can extent back four years, it is recommended that employers take steps to keep these records at least four years.

2. Have compliant policies and document everything.

I cannot overemphasis the need to document what occurs in the workplace. Most importantly, employers need to document employee performance. It is all too often that a problem employee’s personnel file does not contain any type of documentation about his poor performance. Then, when the employee challenges the employer’s termination decision, it is much harder to prove the business reason behind the decision.

Employers should periodically have their handbooks, operating policies and new hire packets reviewed to ensure they are current. Employers need to remember that a review of policies should extend beyond the handbook, but should also incorporate a review of all other policies, pay practices, and documents that are given to employees when they are hired, during employment, and at termination.

3. Get to know an employment attorney you can run issues by on a day-to-day basis.

You knew this was coming, but regardless of the unashamed self-promotion, employers should have counsel that is well versed in California employment law. California’s employment laws are very nuanced, and an attorney that has experience in this area will save the company not only in legal fees, but also in potential exposure. I have a client that says that when you have a problem with your eyes, you don’t go to you general practitioner. The same applies for advice on California employment issues. It is very unique. In addition, working with an employment lawyer on a routine basis is also a great way to see how he or she works and if the lawyer is compatible with your operations. This is much better to find out early on, instead of discovering that you don’t get along with your counsel in the middle of defending a class action lawsuit.

4. Consider hiring a knowledgeable HR professional.

An experienced HR professional will allow the president or other executives in the company to focus their time and energy in their core roles. In addition, it is helpful from a structural and managerial perspective for the employees in an organization to know exactly who to go to for HR information or complaints. A human resources professional with experience in handling workplace investigations and dealing with employee complaints is very valuable to a company – let’s face it, no matter how well you run your company, there will be complaints. Having a proactive, knowledgeable professional assisting in the process of investigating and resolving the issues is instrumental to a successful company.

5. The owner/CEO needs to be present, involved, and open to hearing out employees’ complaints.

In my opinion, I think the most important step towards reducing employment litigation comes from the top.  And the amount of litigation is inversely proportional to how involved the owner or the CEO of the company is with the employees.  I’ve seen very large employers in California have a very clean litigation record because the owner is in the building every day, knows the employees by name, is available to hear employee complaints and steps in to resolve disputes.  It goes without saying – if the employee has a process within the company to make a complaint, and feels that the company treats the complaints seriously, most issues can be resolved.  Once the employee feels that he or she is not being heard, or treated fairly within the company, they start looking toward litigation to resolve disputes.