I was recently talking with a business owner that shared what I would call something of a horror story.

Horrific because it was a situation that could easily have been avoided with the guidance of a seasoned Human Resource Management professional or employment law attorney.

Here is the story

The business owner owns a retail establishment with about 30 employees. One of her employees was struggling with alcohol addiction and, thankfully, approached her so that he could take some time off to seek treatment. She knew that she was obligated to provide him with a leave of absence during which she had to keep his job protected so that he could return to work. They agreed that he would call her at the end of the 90 days to arrange his return.

In her words, day 91 came and went. In her mind, this lack of communication constituted his voluntary resignation. She rehired for his position and continued to run operate her rather successful business.

Fast forward another two months. She received a phone call from her now former employee. He explained that he had completed treatment and that he was now ready to come back to work. She was surprised by this and told him that he no longer had his job available since she did not hear from him after their agreed-upon 90 days. He was very displeased, and she was very sorry, but she didn’t see that she could do anything about it at this point.

It’s just common sense that he should have called her at the 90-day mark as they agreed, right?

Well, not according to the California Labor Commissioner. The former employee filed a complaint and sued the business owner. She told me that it was a $100,000 mistake – that was her penalty that she had to pay the former employee in wages lost because she didn’t give him his job back after five months. I told her that she got out of that inexpensively.

This is not a story about the rights employees have when they seek substance abuse rehabilitation. This is a story about a business owner that simply didn’t know what she didn’t know.

-She didn’t know about something called the “interactive process,” something that she would have been guided through by someone with expertise in Human Resource Management.

-She didn’t know anything about “reasonable accommodation” or that seeking drug and alcohol rehabilitation is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Employment and Housing Act.

A Human Resource Management professional would have been able to guide this business owner through the in’s and out’s of informing the employee of his rights, getting the documentation in place to approve the leave, making the communication process clear, and moving forward with the interactive process.

This would have certainly been an expense to the business owner, but a much smaller one than the penalty she ended up paying.

It’s easy to have 20-20 hindsight, though, isn’t it? The business owner really believed that she was doing the right thing. A 90-day protected leave sounded very reasonable to her. If she had worked with a human resources professional or employment law attorney, that would have been an expense that certainly would have prevented the penalty that she had to pay, but she wouldn’t have known about the penalty because it would have been prevented.

That’s the funny thing about prevention – you never know what the outcome would have been without it. This brings to mind Benjamin Franklin’s saying that still holds true today, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

I’m happy to report that this business owner now keeps in close contact with a seasoned Human Resource Management professional to review her policies and processes on a regular basis. She also works with a professional accountant to keep her on track financially and with a marketing specialist to help her with branding and her social media presence because, as it turns out, she also doesn’t have expertise in those areas either. This has freed her time to work on what she is an expert in – running her business!

Managing a business requires a variety of skills. I have learned through my own experience and that of my clients that I need to rely on the expertise of others. I do not have the interest or time to figure out how to set up an accounting system or develop a social media campaign. I have developed a virtual team of experts to call on when needed.

What support do you need to run your business? Reach out to the HR professionals with the expertise you need to allow you to focus on what you do best. 

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