Harsh weather conditions can, and will, strike.
When they do, they come with a whirlwind of logistical, safety, and human resource challenges for businesses both small and large. Everything from torrential downpours to blizzards to hurricanes will affect your employees' productivity, especially if they travel often or work outdoors. Just look at Winter Storm Janus, which is taking aim at the East Coast.
Addressing the effects of severe weather on your business before it strikes is be the key to effectively managing your workforce. It's also important to keep in mind that while you want employees to be safe and stay home if they need to, you need to protect your business from employees gaming the system under a weak policy-;and staying home because of a few flurries.
"Inclement weather is one of those issues that engenders some strong feelings," says Eric Athey, the co-chair of the Labor and Employment Group at the McNees law offices in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. "If the employee is expected to come in when things are dangerous, that could sour the relationship. Likewise if he feels like he should be paid in particular circumstances and he's not-;that could give someone a bad attitude."
Armed with a focused inclement weather policy, as well as a keen understanding of how to communicate with your employees and customers during dismal conditions, you'll weather the storm just fine. Here's how to do it.
Step 1: Form a Plan
Dust off that employee handbook. It's time to update your inclement weather policy-;that is, if you have one. According to a survey of small business owners by Travelers Insurance, nearly 44 percent of all U.S. small businesses do not have a written business continuity plan, or any other type of document, that explains what will happen to the business in the event of serious weather emergencies.
In fact, the survey noted, "risk management ranks relatively low among priorities facing small business owners."
Your business can't afford this level of ambiguity. According to Athey, it's important to think through the different weather scenarios and address them as they arise. By addressing these issues with your employees, you set the expectations of what they are required to do in bad weather. Plus, your company is much less likely to have any "unpleasant surprises," he says.
"It's sort of like road rage-;or ice rage," Athey says. "If someone is out there sliding all over the road, and they get to work and find out the place is closed or they're not going to get paid-;well, it's not a great way to improve your employer-employee relationship."
The inclement weather policy should clearly spell out who is responsible for announcing any closures, and where they will be able to find that information. Rania Sedhom, a consultant who specializes in communicating policies employees, says that it's essential to remind employees of protocol for bad weather. "Don't be afraid to repeat yourself," she says. "It's not insulting-;make it your customary announcement at the end of September or early October. Continually communicate." And, if you change the policy, especially in regards to pay, let them know sooner than later.
Step 2: Employee Payment on Days Off
In the event that your office must close due to bad weather, one of the most common questions becomes: Do you need to pay your employees?
Generally, under federal law, an employer can make whatever rules it wants for its non-exempt employees, according to Athey.
But for exempt employees, there are generally two rules (which are subject to state laws). The first rule says that an employee earns a full day's pay if he or she works any part of the day. For example, if the employee comes in to the office but the office shuts down early, that employee must be paid for a full day. The second rule is that if the employer chooses to close the office-;and it was the employer's explicit decision to close the office-;the employee must be paid. But according to Athey, there's a flipside to this rule. If the employer chooses to keep the office and the employee does not come to work-;even if the roads are bad-;legally speaking, the employer does not have to pay the employee.
A Department of Labor opinion written by Alfred Robinson, Jr., a deputy administrator, makes this issue very clear. "An absence due to inclement weather does not constitute an absence due to sickness or accident," he writes. "Therefore, an employee who is absent due to inclement weather, such as because of transportation difficulties, is absent for personal reasons."
Of course, your business can make its own policies regarding payment on days of inclement weather, especially for non-exempt employees. According to a Connecticut Business and Industry Association survey of 430 member-companies, the most common practice when "bad weather forces a closing" is to pay hourly employees only for the hours actually worked. "This was true for a majority of both small employers (25 to 249 employees) and large employers (more than 250 employees)," according to the survey.
Also, Sedhom recommends that you pay particular attention to inclement weather policies as they relate to any type of union employees. Review your contract with them, and determine if any clauses require you to pay a union employee regardless of hours worked.
Step 3: Out of Office Communication
How do you let employees know whether they should come to work? Some organizations set up phone trees, but it's just as easy to send out a mass email to inform your employees of your decisions whether to close or stay open.
According to Sedhom, some organizations are beginning to use social media to let their employees know if it's too dangerous to come to work. If all else fails, send out a tweet-;though a social-media message shouldn't be the first, last, or only word on the matter.
If your business has a retail space or your company deals with clients on a daily basis, you'll want to identify a good way to notify customers that the business is closed. This could be in the form of an e-mail, an update to your website, or even a voicemail message on your company's main line that explains that the office or store is closed and not to expect a response. For example, if your client is expecting a delivery, let them know the reason behind the delay. The worst thing you can do is leave a customer feeling left out in the cold-;literally.
Sedhom also points out that closing your office doesn't necessarily mean you must shut down your business. Working remotely, or in the cloud, is increasingly feasible, and for some, beneficial. Schedule training sessions for employees who are new to cloud computing. Basic tools like Skype and Google Docs can get your business up an running even in the worst of weather.
Step 4: Assess Your Business's Liability
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 1.2 million people reported nonfatal occupational injury and illness cases that required days away from work to recuperate.
If your company decides to stay open during bad weather, it's important to understand some of the risks you face. For example, an employee may have recourse to sue an employer if they can prove the employer was negligent for remaining open. Check with your business's insurance policy to make sure it covers any accidents on company property caused by inclement weather conditions.