Lack of resources Featured

9:58am EDT July 22, 2002

What you don’t know could hurt you.

Mimi Sommer, executive director of Concord Counseling Services, almost learned that the hard way.

In her quest to keep overhead low at her not-for-profit Westerville agency, Sommer and her board decided not to hire specialized administrative staff such as a human resources director. Instead, duties such as hiring employees and putting together a personnel manual would be absorbed by Sommer and middle managers.

Sommer wasn’t, however, entirely comfortable with that arrangement, especially because it had been some time since the organization’s personnel policies had been revised.

“I was very aware of lots of litigation across the country in regard to employee issues, and that was my concern,” Sommer says.

So about a year ago, she hired Workforce Directions Inc., a Northwest Columbus human resources consulting firm, to conduct an HR audit at Concord.

That audit made Sommer realize Concord’s personnel manual was lacking certain policies—policies that could have prevented potential liabilities. For example, Concord’s practice of letting counselors use personal automobiles to transport clients to and from appointments was identified by Workforce Directions as a potential liability. Not only did Concord and each counselor need to carry specific insurance policies to drive clients around, but more information was needed about these drivers.

“We had no policy for employees that were taking prescription medication that may interfere with their ability to do their job,” Sommer notes. “We had no way of making sure we were aware they were on prescription medication. We had to have an OK from either their physician or pharmacist that they could continue to function.”

Now, the center has a policy for employees to report taking medication that may inhibit their driving ability, and has instituted a periodic driving record check on employees who drive as part of their job.

In addition, Workforce Directions found that two of Concord’s 38 employees who should have been exempt were listed in payroll records as nonexempt and uncovered a problem with the classification of two of the 15 to 20 subcontractors Concord uses for professional services.

“They were treated as subcontractors, yet steps had not been taken to truly make them subcontractors,” says Glover Shearron, president of Workforce Directions. For instance, one was using one of Concord’s computer terminals at home.

“A business cannot provide a subcontractor with a substantial piece of equipment and have them be looked at by the IRS as a subcontractor,” explains Workforce Directions CEO Janet Shearron.

To fix the situation, Concord sold the computer equipment to the subcontractor and ascertained that the subcontractor had other clients and was not financially dependent on Concord.

Sommer says she also was unaware, prior to the audit, of case law regarding negligent hiring. The Shearrons are helping her understand what background and reference checks she needs to protect the agency against liability.

In addition, the Shearrons are updating the center’s affirmative action plan, employment application forms, performance evaluation system and job descriptions and will conduct informal luncheons with middle managers at the center this year to talk about employment issues.

For all this, Concord will pay the Shearrons less than $10,000 over two years.

“Their level of expertise we could not afford to have on staff,” Sommer says.

Joan Slattery Wall is a reporter for SBN.