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Good Employment Practices Protect Ministries

As a church leader, you might think your employees would never sue you. Think again.

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Church staff join to review employee handbook

Thousands of people file discrimination charges against their employers each year, and even the best-run churches are not exempt from being sued. In fact, employment claims against churches are on the rise. But preparing for the unpleasant possibility in advance can prevent some employment conflicts and better equip your church to deal with those that arise.

Are you protected?

Sound employment practices help your organization run smoothly and reduce the likelihood that an employment-related lawsuit will be filed.

To address the risk of such claims, your church should:

  • Become familiar with employment laws in your state.

  • Maintain an employee handbook. Update it regularly to reflect current laws and practices.

  • Consult an attorney to determine how to improve your ministry’s employment practices, or to discuss specific situations.

Thorny employment issues often involve the areas of attendance, personal conduct, and sexual harassment. Established policies can serve as a guide for employees, and, in the case of a lawsuit, accurate documentation of policy violations can provide proof that you were justified in disciplining or terminating an employee.

Attendance: Make good record-keeping a priority.

In a situation of chronic absenteeism or tardiness, you may decide to terminate an employee after multiple warnings. But what if he claims you’re acting for other reasons?

Implementing standard procedures ahead of time will help you answer such claims and comply with employment law:

  • Maintain accurate, confidential personnel records.

  • Store the records in a secure area. Medical information, which is subject to a higher level of privacy protection, should be kept in a separate secure location.

  • Keep up-to-date attendance records.

  • Keep detailed employee performance information, such as annual reviews and any disciplinary actions.

  • Exclude identifying information (e.g., race, color, sex, national origin, age, disability, or marital status).

  • Record all changes in employee status, such as promotions, leaves of absence, or pay rates.

A variety of state and federal laws may bear on the attendance issue, including the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), or state disability laws.

Personal Conduct: Provide clear expectations.

You may have to deal with church employees whose conduct is inappropriate—such as day-care-center workers who spend their workday discussing weekend drinking and partying.

Make sure employees understand from the beginning that they will be held to organizational standards:

  • Establish a personal conduct policy outlining behavior considered unacceptable by your church.

  • Require new employees to sign a personal conduct contract.

  • Provide regular training on employees’ rights and responsibilities.

If employee conduct merits disciplinary action or termination:

  • Get signed statements from people who witnessed the behavior or overheard the employees talking about it.

  • Discuss the allegations with the employees.

  • Give the employees a copy of the policies violated by their behavior.

  • If policies are not yet in place, warn the employees that similar behavior in the future could result in termination.

  • Take appropriate disciplinary action.

State laws give employers varying degrees of control over employees’ conduct outside the workplace. In some states, religious organizations have more freedom in this matter than other organizations.

Sexual Harassment: Create policies and investigate impartially.

How would you handle a complaint by a female employee that a male employee has been making sexual comments and emailing her inappropriate images?

The following measures will enable your church to define the consequences in this type of situation:

  • Create an electronic media policy. This prohibits the use of computers or email for transmission of, or access to, information that is illicit, unsavory, pornographic, or harassing.

  • Establish a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment. State in writing that harassment will result in disciplinary action.

  • Train employees to recognize and report sexual harassment.

In reviewing allegations of misconduct:

  • Don’t tell the employee to deal with it herself.

  • Investigate to determine whether the behavior in question violates your sexual harassment or electronic media policies.

  • If possible, check email records or Internet sites the accused has accessed.

  • Discuss the incident with each of the individuals. Interview and get signed statements from witnesses. If you find a violation, discipline or terminate the offender.

  • Don’t punish the accuser for reporting the behavior.

If you terminate the offender:

  1. Tell the staff and congregation only that the person violated church policy.

  2. If asked for a reference by a potential employer, limit your comments to the person’s employment dates.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held employers strictly responsible for acts of sexual harassment committed by supervisory employees, even if the employer prohibited or was unaware of the conduct.