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Finally Get a Handle on Work-Life Balance

Sure, you can get your own life relatively balanced--but what about managing an entire start-up full of workaholics?
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As employers, we all know that the New Year causes our employees to rethink their priorities. This is especially true in small companies and start-ups, where the life part of work-life balance is often malnourished.

But you are a good boss: You want to be known for the stellar treatment of your employees. Maybe you dream of a day when Glassdoor names your company as one of its "Best Places to Work." Before you enact that telecommuting policy, start offering flexible hours, or buy that combination table tennis-foosball-pool table for the break room, here are five things you want to consider:

1. Make it official.

Don't just haphazardly start bending rules. Enact a formal work-life program or policy. Do this by first considering what kinds of work-life benefits would really be recognized as benefits to your employees. Examples of work-life program components include things like flexible work arrangements (such as flexible hours or a compressed workweek), allowing part-time schedules, offering telecommuting options, permitting "shift swapping" (for companies with around-the-clock work shifts), or providing discretionary leave, such as paternity, educational, community-service, or sabbatical.

2. Make it legal.

Understand that not all work-life programs work in all states. For instance, it is very difficult to offer a compressed workweek (such as 10 hours a day for four days a week) without running afoul of wage and hour laws regarding overtime. A work-life program that is properly planned and evenly implemented can provide employers a competitive edge in attracting and retaining a diverse, highly productive workforce. Otherwise, these programs can backfire and become a source of legal risk and low morale.

3. Understand and manage the risks.

Although these policies are enacted by the higher-ups in a company, they are often left to be executed by those in direct management. A typical process has the employee approach her or his manager with a specific request to take advantage of a work-life program. Then the manager decides to grant approval or not--approval is not guaranteed. This can lead to inconsistencies across managers and leave a company open to claims of foul play or favoritism. An employee and a clever plaintiffs' lawyer can always claim that denial was in fact discrimination based on a protected class (provided one exists, of course). My advice is to have a central place where such requests are made (like the HR department) and have it keep track of approvals and denials--so it can ensure fair application of program guidelines.

4. Keep good records.

One way to reduce the risk is to keep accurate documentation that clearly articulates the reasons why a work-life program was authorized or not authorized. This will allow you (or your HR manager) to make sure that the rules are being applied fairly. If a problem comes up, then be sure to investigate and take appropriate action based on the result. Be sure to train or reprimand managers that fail to keep accurate records or fail to apply their discretion consistently.

5. Recognize the FMLA or ADA.

Some requests for a work-life program are actually veiled requests for a protected leave. If an employee wants to work part time to take care of an ailing spouse or a sick child, this should be treated as a "demand" for FMLA leave (Family and Medical Leave Act) and not a "request" for a flexible schedule. Likewise, if you suspect that an employee is requesting a flexible work arrangement because of a medical condition, be sure to first analyze the request according to the definition of "reasonable accommodation" under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Even though work-life programs offer real advantages to employers and employees, it is necessary to understand the risks that are associated. This is especially relevant when it comes to employment law--an area where the law is both state specific and always changing. Be sure to work closely with employment counsel to reduce your risk to a level that is right for your organization. The time to do this is not after you get in trouble--so be sure to get legal review before you launch the program, and get advice during program implementation. Then you can be safely on your way to that coveted "Best Places to Work" list.

IMAGE: socialeurope/Flickr
Last updated: Feb 13, 2013

CHAS RAMPENTHAL | Columnist | General Counsel, LegalZoom

Chas Rampenthal is general counsel and vice president of product development at LegalZoom. He's also a former talk radio host (KTLK AM 1150 at Clear Channel) and an entrepreneur himself, as the founder of LegalEndeavor.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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