Avoiding Common Personnel Pitfalls

Christy K. Monson

From our November 2017 e-newsletter

We’ve noticed that many cities and districts often make the same personnel mistakes. So, in the interest of helping you avoid some of these common pitfalls, we’ve listed what we consider the costliest mistakes below. If you’d like advice on any of these common errors, please don’t hesitate to call us.

  1. Adopting Conflicting Policies And Handbooks. Governments should adopt a simple Employee Handbook. This is a good practice. However, many governments, in addition to adopting an Employee Handbook, also adopt: Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), Standard Operating Guidelines (SOGs), Lexipol policies, Collective Bargaining Agreements, and Employment Contracts. With so many other documents, it’s not surprising that over time policies have been amended to contain conflicting rules. Your City or District should place all of its personnel rules in one document – your Employee Handbook. Other more specific rules (such as rules about use of force for police officers or rules about breathing apparatus use for firefighters) can be placed in SOPs or SOGs – but the subject matters should not overlap or conflict. Also, your policies must always clearly provide: 1) which employees are subject to which policy; and 2) the order of priority regarding which policy/rule “trumps” the others in case of a conflict.
  2. Adopting A Neighboring Government’s Policies. Some laws do apply to all governments, such as certain constitutional protections against discrimination. However, some laws apply only if your government has a certain threshold number of employees. For example, for your employees to be covered under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), you must employ at least 50 people within 75 miles of your worksite. By adopting a larger jurisdiction’s policies, some smaller governments have inadvertently obligated themselves to provide all FMLA benefits to all employees, even though they are not legally required to do so. While it’s completely legal (and good) to provide better benefits than the law requires – you should at least be making these decisions knowingly. Adopting the wrong policies could lead to serious unfunded liability, unintended contractual obligations, and scheduling and staffing issues.
  3. Authorizing Non-Union Staff To Receive Benefits Of A Collective Bargaining Agreement. Some governments “tie” non-union benefits, processes, or wages to the union’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA). While it may seem fair and easy to operate in this way, it is generally a mistake. Many non-union workers are salaried, FLSA-exempt employees and their positions don’t easily fit within the CBA processes and benefits. Further, sometimes management staff participates in bargaining – thus possibly giving rise to a conflict of interest if management staff negotiates for pay and benefits that they will personally receive later on.
  4. Forgetting That Elected Officials Don’t (Usually) Have Authority Over Personnel Issues. For the great majority of Oregon’s governments, personnel and employment issues are properly managed by your chief executive. This is because committees, boards, and councils, by their very nature, are horrible bosses. They usually do not have the time, expertise, or resources to manage a staff. There are too many decision makers on a board for that board to provide clear, concise, and timely direction to an employee. This is likely why most City Charters forbid councilors from interfering in a City Administrator’s duties. The only management job most elected officials have is to manage one employee, the administrator/fire chief/superintendent (“the CEO”).
  5. Not Delegating The “CEO” Management Job. Many governments tend to forget to put into place simple processes which would allow them to be good managers of the “CEO”. At your first meeting, your board or council should decide which elected official will serve at the CEO’s point of contact for job related questions/approvals, such as vacation authorization, paycheck questions, and disciplinary issues. You should also put into a place an annual plan to evaluate the CEO’s job performance and consider pay raises and employment contract issues.
  6. Entering Into Employment Contracts For All Or Most Employees. Employment contracts should only be used for high level employees who may be subject to political pressure due to the nature of their jobs. Usually, for Oregon’s governments, this means the CEO. Employment contracts are not good tools to manage the employment relationship between your government and its regular employees.