The View from HR

Don’t let legal obligations keep you from running a successful business

July 27, 2013 

I have a theory: Employers are bound by so many legal obligations to government, regulators and employees there is insufficient time for the most important aspects of running their business. Let me use just one example.

Immigration Form I-9 is required within three days of all hires. New employees must show evidence of identity and authorization to work. This is simple for most; usually a Social Security card and driver’s license will do the trick. But there are dozens of documents that could be used to meet the requirements.

The problem with laws like this is that their original purpose becomes diluted and unnecessarily complicated, with “don’t ask/don’t tell” rules and threats of fines and immigration raids. Yes, this law might prevent some hiring of certain illegal workers, if you can assume those same employers will follow one law while willfully breaking another. In general, hyper-technical rules and their rigid enforcement are at once comical and profoundly wasteful.

Normal human behavior with no attempt at deceit can still expose an employer to violating this law. This includes suggesting to the applicant the typical documents that are used, or which two of the four they possess will be easiest to use, using strike-throughs to correct errors, failure to later re-verify certain documents with an expiration date (such as a visa) or re-verifying others you should not (such as a passport). The feds really do investigate I-9 Form missteps and issue fines even when there is no evidence an illegal worker was hired.

Who runs the business?

This maddening topic recently drove 200 employers to our call-in webinar with another 45 attending in person. We would be happy to see 20 in the room for our management skills training! Think about it: Which class has more positive impact?

Yes, regulation is needed. Employers are not all altruistic. Still, when rule-makers become so focused on weeding out every possible violation that 100 percent compliance requires 100 percent of our mental energy, who runs the business?

How can we treat each other fundamentally fairly, encourage cooperation and success, and comply with the rules?

Really understand the rules. You will then see the true danger zones and how addressing the central 20 percent leads to 80 percent of your compliance success. Without understanding and focus, everything seems equally important, and the best decision becomes, “No, we can’t do that!”

Remove needless policies

Avoid starting with the rule when solving a business or employee problem. Otherwise, the obsession with compliance will drive your decision-making rather than legitimate business and fairness needs. People are treated poorly in the name of legal compliance every day. It will happen less if the law is your second filter rather than your first.

Call a lawyer when the law is your problem. When the issue is really a people problem with some legal implications around the edges, however, call a trusted peer or someone with experience in your situation. Legal issues are simpler once the muddiness of human interaction is clarified and the questions of intentions and fairness are answered.

Eliminate complex company policies addressing theoretical and occasional abuses. Instead, spend internal rule-making energy on impactful things.

Meet your obligations, but keep your hands on the steering wheel!

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is president and CEO of CAI Inc., a human resource management firm, with locations in Raleigh and Greensboro. CAI helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability. For more information, visit

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