Today’s reader question is one I think we all struggle with at some point. Whether we’re in human resources, a department manager, or a colleague, how do we help employees when they fall on hard times?
Hi. Recently, the question of donations to individual employees has become a hot topic. For example, if we have an ill employee who requests that we (as a company) support a fundraiser to pay for their medical expenses or give a company donation to aid in medical expenses. How are other companies handling requests like this?
Often, our immediate reaction is to respond with our hearts and say, “let’s do something!” then our heads kick in and ask about the legal ramifications. I don’t know about you but that’s when I have to reach for some Aleve and call my friendly employment lawyer. So that’s what I did here.
This reader question deals with company donations. Should companies consider making donations to employees when they have something devastating happen like a serious illness or personal tragedy such as losing their home? Why or why not?
[Daniel] Excellent question. This is really a ‘Company’ policy and approach issue. I regularly counsel companies that have such policies, and have drafted these policies for clients. The most common form of such a policy is to allow employees to ‘donate’ their Paid Time Off (PTO) to an ‘employee in need.’ Such policies are very popular, and coincide quite nicely when the company has a ‘use it or lose it’ paid time off policy. In that circumstance, many employees are encouraged into philanthropic acts that are really beneficial to their co-workers, especially when they consider that they may ‘lose’ the benefit if it is not used by themselves during that calendar year.
I also, however, counsel clients that they should attempt to stay away from general ‘fundraisers’ to benefit employees. This can create a morass of issues that range from National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) concerns, competition among employees, and favoritism among employees.
Often when these situations occur, regardless of what the company does, the employees want do to something. I’ve always heard that if companies allow donations that they’re putting their “no solicitation” policies in jeopardy. Is that true?
[Daniel] Yes and no. It depends how a company permits the donation and whether they open up the practice for soliciting support with very limited oversight or restrictions. Using the above examples, a policy that allows an employee to donate his/her unused PTO to an employee in need, will not run afoul of an employer’s no solicitation policy, and will also not open up the employer’s resources to use by all employees in whatever manner they please – which is one of the goals of a no solicitation policy.
However, if an employer were to allow employees to ‘post’ on bulletin boards or otherwise ‘market’ through the company email system a ‘fundraiser’ for Johnny Employee, there may be some question on whether the employer may later impose certain email use restrictions – including, restrictions on use by employees to ‘organize’ their fellow workers in support of union representation.
You mentioned earlier that some organizations have created policies that allow employees to “donate” paid time off to other employees in need. Does that compromise a “no solicitation” policy? If not, should companies consider adding a policy like this to allow employees to help each other?
[Daniel] As discussed above, it does not. Frankly, I think this is a very good policy for employers that have a ‘culture’ of support, and I would recommend employers consider this type of policy. However, if the policy is not administered well – for example, if employees are allowed to ‘solicit’ support or requests for support or donations of PTO over the company communications systems, there may always be an argument if those same systems are being restricted for other uses that this use ‘opens’ the systems up.
Accordingly, if a company implements a PTO Donation Policy, it should outline in the policy the manner by which requests and donations may occur and be communicated – the best of which is through direct communication with the human resources department only.
Another new development is the creation of personal crowdfunding campaigns. GoFundMe.com is an example. If an employee is having a rough time and others want to help, can companies suggest this as an option? Is there any liability for the company if they promote or support such a campaign? Any liability for the employees who contribute?
[Daniel] I am personally not in favor of these type of practices in the workplace. Primarily for three reasons identified above:
- It could ‘open up’ an employer’s communications systems for other, non-desired and non-anticipated uses;
- It can create opportunities for abuse and ‘cheating’ of co-workers; and
- It can create moral and jealousy issues among co-workers.
These concerns are buttressed by the additional concerns for Companies that decide they are going to ‘support’ or ‘promote’ such activities/campaigns. In that circumstance, an employee who contributes based upon his/her employer’s recommendation or support, and discovers that the individual soliciting the support was misusing the contribution or engaged in a fraud, may seek to hold the company responsible by suggesting the endorsement was the sole influence in making the contribution.
No employer wants to be responsible for deep investigation of every employee situation wherein such fundraising is occurring. As such, no employer should become involved in ‘supporting’ or ‘promoting’ such campaigns.
No one wants to be the HR director or department manager that bans employees helping a co-worker in need. For companies with strict ‘no solicitation’ policies, what suggestions can organizations consider when an employee falls on hard times?
[Daniel] Again, I would recommend giving some consideration to the PTO Donation Policy discussed above. In addition, many employers have sponsored or purchased Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) which are designed to provide the sort of emotional, health, educational support that many employees in need may require. An investment in an EAP program/policy and its communication to employees as a Company benefit can be a powerful support tool for employers.
Again, my thanks to Daniel for sharing his expertise. Please be sure to check out the Foley & Lardner blog for more valuable information.
If your organization hasn’t considered a PTO donation policy, the Society for Human Resource Management has an article on how to create leave donation programs along with sample forms (membership login required to access the Templates & Samples section). Even when we have a heart full of good intentions, it’s important to use our heads. That allows us to give the employee we want to help the best outcome possible.
Image courtesy of HR Bartender