Summer Workplace Issues

Author: Beth P. Zoller, XpertHR Legal Editor

With longer days, warmer temperatures and school vacations coming soon, the summer months often presents unique issues for employers when it comes to dress codes, social events, time off and protecting workers from the heat, among other things. A prudent employer should take note of the challenging issues the summer may present and develop a set of best practices for handling these issues in order to make the workplace more productive and efficient, as well as minimize the risk of employer liability.

The following are key issues an employer should consider:

1. Summer Dress Codes

A summer dress code is an inexpensive way to improve workplace morale and make employees feel more comfortable when the warm weather hits. It is important to communicate the summer dress code policy to all employees and train supervisors so that they know:

  • The employer's expectations;
  • When the policy is in effect;
  • What is considered acceptable workplace attire (e.g., golf shirts, khakis, sundresses); and
  • What is considered unacceptable workplace attire (e.g., beach cover ups, flip flops).

The employer should focus on the need to look professional and appropriate at all times, which may vary based upon the type of workplace and the amount of interaction employees have with clients, customers and third parties. In implementing and enforcing any dress code, an employer should avoid policies imposing unequal burdens on men and women or other protected classes. Otherwise, an employer may face a sex discrimination or harassment claim. An employer should also recognize that it may be required to provide reasonable accommodations based on a protected class status, such as religion, race or transgender status. The employer should enforce the policy consistently, following up on violations, properly documenting them, providing warnings and imposing discipline if necessary.

2. Hygiene and Grooming

During the warm summer months, body odor and other hygiene issues may become more prevalent. An employer should address such issues head on before they have a negative effect on productivity, health, safety and public image. A grooming policy should provide notice regarding the employer's expectations regarding employee hygiene at work. The policy should assure supervisors and employees that any issues will be handled in a sensitive manner so as not to embarrass employees. Further, an employer should remember that poor hygiene and/or body odor may be related to a disability or a religious belief, and therefore an employer should be prepared to provide a reasonable accommodation.

3. Protection from the Heat

The job duties and responsibilities of some employees may require them to spend time working outside. In the summer, hot temperatures can cause employees to develop various heat-related issues including sunburn, heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps and heat rash. An employer should take proper precautions to protect the health and safety of employees, as well as comply with the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act). An employer that fails to take the appropriate measures to protect employees from the heat may face OSH Act fines and penalties, as well as claims for damages employees suffer while working. It is critical for an employer to educate employees about how to protect themselves from the heat by wearing sunscreen and drinking water. An employer should also provide breaks, set up worksites in the shade and shut down operations during extreme heat waves. Further, an employer should train all supervisors and managers to recognize the signs and symptoms of heat illness and respond quickly if employees are in distress.

4. Employer-Sponsored Social Events

While summer workplace parties or outings, such as company picnics, barbecues or baseball games, may encourage workplace camaraderie, boost employee morale and show appreciation, employers must take steps to decrease the risk of legal liability. To avoid wage and hour claims, an employer should make sure attendance is voluntary, hold events outside of working hours and avoid discussing work-related matters. Further, an employer should take the proper precautions with respect to alcohol and minimize the risk of any inappropriate behavior or harassment by carefully tracking alcohol intake and having managers and supervisors monitor any unprofessional workplace behavior. The employer should also make sure employees do not drink and drive and consider providing safe transportation home. Further, to reduce the risk of workers' compensation claims, an employer should make sure the outing is in a safe environment.

5. Harassment

With the renewed focus on sexual harassment claims in the #metoo era, it is more important than ever for an employer to minimize the risk of harassment during the summer months when employees may be more relaxed or dress in a more revealing manner. An employer should guard itself against harassment claims by:

  • Establishing a zero-tolerance policy for harassment, prominently placed in the employee handbook, emphasizing that harassment of any kind is not acceptable at all levels of the organization;
  • Training all supervisors and employees to understand what constitutes harassment so they know how to identify and report it;
  • Creating a multichannel complaint structure allowing individuals to bring harassment complaints to various members of management without fear of retaliation;
  • Properly documenting all harassment complaints and all measures taken to address them; and
  • Assuring employees that it takes all instances of harassment seriously and it will follow up on them with an investigation and interim and disciplinary measures if warranted.

6. Summer Interns

During the summer, it may be common for an employer to hire interns to provide exposure and insight into the business and, potentially, prepare them for future employment. However, an unpaid intern may claim that he or she is an employee and should be properly compensated and provided with workplace protections. An employer considering unpaid internships should be sure the intern realizes most of the benefit. An employer should take the following actions to help limit the legal risks of an unpaid internship:

  • Make sure the employer and the intern both clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation, ideally with a written acknowledgment from both the intern and the company;
  • Provide training that would be similar to what would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions;
  • Tie the internship to the intern's formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit;
  • Accommodate the intern's academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar;
  • Ensure the intern continues to learn during the entire duration of his or her internship;
  • Make the intern's work complement, rather than displace, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern; and
  • Understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

7. Telecommuting and Flexible Schedules

Summer may be a time when employees are more interested in telecommuting and flexible schedules to help them spend more time with family, watch children home from school, enjoy the summer weather and longer days and otherwise improve work-life balance. An employer may provide support by allowing employees to work remotely and implementing flex-time policies. However, if an employer permits this, it should be sure to establish comprehensive policies and procedures. An employer should ensure that employees record the time actually spent working and outline the employer's guidelines and expectations regarding productivity and deadlines. An employer still may be liable for any unpaid wages or overtime for time spent working and thus should make sure to compensate employees properly based on time records.

8. Seasonal Hires

When hiring any seasonal workers or temporary workers to assist during the summer months, it is important for an employer to utilize the same hiring practices and background checks as the employer uses for all full-time workers. Further, an employer must comply with all relevant discrimination, harassment and child labor laws.

9. Time Off and Summer Vacations

Summer is often a time when employees take time off to enjoy vacations and special time with loved ones in the beautiful weather. Therefore, an employer should make sure that its policies regarding vacation or paid time off (PTO) are communicated to all employees and placed in an employee handbook. Further, such policies should be applied in uniform manner to prevent discrimination claims. An employer may require employees to provide advance notification of time off and schedules so that the employer may properly plan with respect to scheduling and coverage.