HR for the small business

When Allison Chandler was hired to work at Columbus dentist Dr. Edward Smith's practice three years ago, she came on board as a dental hygienist.

Then, two years later, she was promoted to office manager.

Today, running the office smoothly is the easy part for Chandler, who has had prior dental office experience.

Dealing with human resource issues like hiring and firing — a duty encompassed in her role of office manager — is the hard part. Chandler said she is not so well-versed in the legal ins and outs of the aforementioned.

Chandler's predicament is one a number of other office managers at small businesses — specifically small medical offices — face. In the middle of scheduling appointments, accounting and organizing an office, its manager may also be responsible for issues that the human resource department or in-house counsel at larger companies usually handle.

"Although they are small, they have many of the same problems that larger employers face," said Elizabeth Cook, an attorney at Hatcher & Stubbs. "It's very, very difficult for one person to have the knowledge to keep out of trouble."

Nevertheless, she said, not being up to speed on these issues can expose the business to liabilities.

Legal issues

Chandler said she has hired one person since she has been office manager. But she has not had to fire anyone, and the proper steps in that process — if it ever arises — concern her.

"I would just want to make sure I handled it correctly so that if anything ever came up from it, we know we did what we were supposed to do here on our end," she said.

With Smith's backing, Chandler started looking for a program for office managers who need human resource training.

"A small medical office is like any other small business," Smith said. "We don't turn over a lot of staff, but occasionally you do have staffing issues."

Smith said he wants to make sure he's in compliance with state and federal laws as far as hiring and firing employees goes.

"I just didn't want any issues to come back to us later on," he said. "In dental school, they teach you all about dentistry, but they don't teach you about running the business."

Legal issues can come up even in a simple interview question, for example.

"There are instances in which people can ask inappropriate questions in an interview when really the interviewer was looking for a common bond," Cook said.

Asking what day care a job applicant uses for her children, for example, is unlawful.

"I think the office manager sometimes will be presented with issues that she's simply not aware of," Cook said.

Marybeth Hopkins, Columbus chapter president of the Society for Human Resource Management, was another office professional who had to take on duties similar to those of a human resources director.

Now vice president of administration at Alexander Electric Company, Hopkins was office administrator for about 9 and a half years before that.

"I knew about the legalities of HR and what you could ask and what you couldn't ask," she said. "But I had learned that along the way, working."

"At the time, I think I knew enough to get by, but to get in trouble," she added.

Hopkins learned what she knows about human resources after becoming a SHRM member in 2002 and going through human resource training.

Five years ago, Hopkins enrolled in the Human Resource Certification Institute, a program offered through Troy University. The certification program teaches students core human resource principles and their application.

After she was certified, Hopkins said she understood related laws better. Still, she said there is more room to learn.

"I'm not a pure HR person, I'm an accounting person," she said.

Steps to take

Hopkins said an employee handbook is one of the most important pieces for an office manager who handles human resource issues.

"First and foremost, you have to have a handbook in place, otherwise you're setting yourself up for liability," she said.

The book should spell policies out clearly, especially those on sexual harassment — one policy Cook said in which it is very easy to "cross the line."

"If you don't have a handbook with policies and procedures, then there's nothing to fall back on if you have a problem with an employee," Hopkins said.

Make sure team members are familiar with the handbook, she said.

Cook said a business should also have a written acknowledgement that the employee received the book.

That book is part of the general documentation process — something an office manager should be keen on doing.

"Like many areas of the law, the process is important and they need to document everything they do," Cook said. "And small offices, they're so busy, they wear so many hats, that sometimes they don't take time to do that documentation."

Documenting, she said, is especially pertinent to firing.

For more help, Cook said a business can seek legal counsel. Small businesses can also send their office manager to join organizations like SHRM.

Also keep an eye out for classes and seminars on the topic, Cook said.

Fortunately for Chandler and other interested parties, her search for a class on the subject has ended in success. In February, she reached the Cunningham Center for Leadership Development at Columbus State University to ask for help. There were no classes available on that topic, so the center is organizing a workshop to address just that. It is to be offered in July.