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An Action Plan to Improve Your Culture and Minimize Legal Risk

Laying the groundwork for a robust and magnetic culture takes time. It’s not something that happens automatically, straight out of the gate. Instead, it is thoughtfully built upon the company’s core principles, purpose, vision and mission — piece by piece until it has been integrated into every aspect of operations and actions.

As your culture strengthens, you’ll begin to see tangible benefits related to hiring, engagement, and retention. But a well-defined culture can also minimize your legal risk.

Cultural Expectations

One of the many functions of a deeply ingrained culture is that it essentially outlines the acceptable behavioral standards that the company’s leadership will abide by and impress upon their employees. These guidelines provide some indication as to how the company will operate on a day-to-day basis and function within the community.

You’ve heard the saying made popular by Maya Angelou: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” This same sentiment most definitely applies to businesses! If the company’s behavior contradicts the stated culture in any way, shape or form, you’ll absolutely feel the backlash from your employees and customers as well as the community at large. More specifically, it can irreparably damage relationships with your team members and increase the potential for lawsuits levied by slighted employees.

Take Action to Improve Your Culture

It’s never too late to make improvements to your culture. Think of it as a living, breathing entity — one that requires constant care and nurturing to maintain its vitality. And when this care is taken and your cultural standards are implemented consistently across the board, you can minimize your exposure to legal risks such as employee-initiated litigation.

To make the most of this, you’ll want to tighten up the following areas that heavily influence company culture and adopt an action plan to get back on track.

Communication. We’ve all eaten or worked in a restaurant where communication has not flowed from leadership to the hourly crew or where the front of house and back of house are getting conflicting messages. It becomes apparent rather quickly. Unfortunately, these miscommunications and general lack of openness are incredibly divisive if left to linger, creating unnecessary confusion and leaving your employees feeling frustrated and underappreciated.

Action plan:

  • Commit to making communication a top priority and implementing the S.A.F.E. method.
  • Develop an open door policy in which all team members can contribute input without fear or judgment.
  • Hold weekly team meetings where critical information can be dispersed to everyone at the same time.
  • Consider sending a summary or “meeting minutes” — keep it brief and to the point — to each employee’s work email. This is just another way to ensure full distribution of pertinent information and keep everyone on the same page.

Documentation. Although documentation is frequently cited as the bane of managers’ existence and one reason people tend to dislike HR professionals, there’s no way to completely avoid it. Because it can supplement your communication efforts as well as track employee achievements and disciplinary measures, it’s a great way to insulate your restaurant from unfounded employment lawsuits. But there can be a fine line between pestering employees with needless documentation and keeping them informed and aware of their standing.

Action plan:

  • Review your current documentation methods.
  • Make sure that employees are receiving copies and/or always have unfettered access to key policies and procedures, improvement and corrective action plans and any other information that will affect how they do their jobs. For example, this may be dispersed in printed form or accessible via company intranet.
  • Have employees sign all policies annually or any time that a change is made. The same goes for improvement and corrective action plans as well as any other documentation related to both positive and negative behaviors.

Termination procedure. There is such a thing as terminating someone the wrong way, so using a termination checklist can ensure that you cover the necessary legal bases such as notifying the employee of their rights related to healthcare continuation and final pay. A checklist can also include performance management protocols that are tied to your unique cultural preferences. For instance, your company may use corrective action as a “last resorts” measure, so your termination checklist would include confirmation that all of the performance improvement methods up to and including corrective action have been utilized.

Action plan:

  • Establish a termination policy and checklist that complements your company culture and includes the specific performance improvement options that may be used for struggling employees. During termination proceedings, this will serve as a way to confirm that each employee has been given the same opportunities or timeline to correct their behavior.
  • Form a relationship with an employment law attorney who can review your termination policy and checklist as well as consult on difficult or tricky terminations.

A Sustainable Culture

At a bare minimum, a sustainable culture and environment is one in which employees are encouraged to stretch themselves, freely communicate with management and coworkers, and are generally able to practice some level of autonomy without fear of retaliation. With open communication and the right balance of documentation and performance improvement opportunities, employees can be kept in the loop and feel engaged and empowered in the process.

As this become the cultural norm, turnover and terminations will likely decrease and you’ll enjoy the side benefit of minimizing your exposure to unnecessary legal risks too.

Carrie Luxem is a human resources professional specializing in the restaurant industry. In 2010, she founded Restaurant HR Group where she partners with dozens of restaurateurs to take care of their greatest assets — their people. With a career that has spanned nearly 20 years, Carrie is frequently sought out for her modern, yet simple and effective advice and has been featured in Entrepreneur, Restaurant News, and Independent Restauranteur. Connect with her on social media or learn more at CarrieLuxem.com 

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