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HR and General Counsel – Working Together to Navigate Complex Legal Issues on Campus

HiRes-croppedADA, FLSA, FMLA, Title IX, Title VII, whistleblower protections, EEO, antidiscrimination … the list goes on (and on and on!) of regulations and legislation that have implications for the workplace and workforce. And a large part of HR’s job is to manage that risk and ensure compliance with those laws. Rather than going it alone, wouldn’t it be nice to have an ally in that work? If your HR department doesn’t have a partnership with your institution’s legal counsel, both offices are missing out on a mutually beneficial working relationship.

In the article “HR and General Counsel: Partnering to Navigate Complex Legal Issues on Campus” in the current issue of CUPA-HR’s The Higher Education Workplace magazine, Youndy Cook, deputy general counsel at University of Central Florida, shares several tips on how to not only establish a relationship between the two offices, but also how to ensure effective communication once that partnership has been cemented. (Cook and UCF’s HR team have a very close working relationship, and each calls on the other frequently for advice, expertise and recommendations for courses of action).

Establishing the Relationship
Says Cook, “When establishing a working relationship between HR and legal, or even if employees in each office have worked together for some time, there is great value in having a dialogue about the expectations of each office. Clarifying expectations ensures transparency and helps facilitate an effective and efficient working relationship.”

Some possible items of discussion between the two offices to establish the working parameters might include:

  • What are the philosophies and perspectives of each office on the academic mission of the university, and how as administrative offices do our business strategies support that mission?
  • How will we work together to ensure that the client receives consistent information and relationship management?
  • Who are the authorized decision-makers in our offices? Who are the back-ups?
  • How will our offices ensure seamless communications with university executives?
  • In what types of situations should HR and legal invite in other university entities (executives, EEO, compliance and ethics, diversity, etc.)? How is information shared and in what cases?
  • How does each office respond to direct inquiries/issues? What are the intake procedures for walk-in inquires? Complaints? Anonymous tips? Whistleblowers? When are referrals made?
  • What are the philosophies of each office in regard to risk assessment/tolerance? Discuss the approach each takes when it comes to cost analysis and risk tolerance for decisions.
  • What are the ethical expectations of each office?
  • How will we work together on value-add proactive initiatives (employee relations; search and selection procedures; policy/procedure/protocol development; collective bargaining; documentation review; etc.)

Effective Communication
Establishing the working relationship between HR and legal counsel is only one part of the equation. Without a clear communications strategy, the partnership can fizzle before it ever gets going. Cook’s tips for effective communication include:

  • Communicate regularly, personally and respectfully. Public institutions, however, should be mindful of public records issues.
  • Ensure the prompt and free flow of information. There should be two-way conversations with continuous feedback and expansive sharing of information between both offices.
  • Advise and collaborate. Share and explore recommendations or courses of action that meet the needs of the client and the institution. Be aware that collaboration involves more than just legal counsel and HR working together, and develop an interdisciplinary approach to the client’s matter where appropriate. (Also be mindful that campus politics do matter.)
  • Reach out. Ask questions. Ask your client/customer what they think of the situation, what they think the next step should be, whether they have ultimate goals they hope to achieve beyond the immediate legal issue, whether they are aware of any knowledge of particular challenges that you might not be aware of, etc. Make time to attend “social” events like receptions and retirement events of the other office – they are a great opportunity to check in informally and develop stronger relationships.
    HR-Specific – Reach out to your lawyer as you see fit but try to be proactive if you identify areas of exposure or risk.
    Legal-Specific – Being a good partner to HR includes reaching out to HR with news and updates about topics affecting HR – and making HR aware of issues in their area which come to your attention through other channels.
  • Be clear. Know how to get to the point. Provide a clear message and confirm that it is understood. As part of being clear with your advice/responses, articulate limitations, assumptions and exclusions and provide examples.
  • Be partners. HR and legal counsel should get to know one another. Get to know who in the other office is your primary contact, who can make decisions (and who cannot) and who can gather and provide information.
  • Acknowledge and address challenges. As an HR professional, you will recognize when a problem is difficult or intractable — don’t expect your attorney to be able to work a solution when even you think it is unlikely or impossible. Don’t create unrealistic expectations, and don’t let your clients/customers or other campus stakeholders suffer from them.

In order to continue its evolution as a strategic contributor to institutional priorities, mission and goals, it is critical that human resources creates and nurtures partnerships with other campus units. Read about some of these partnership strategies:
The Shared Business of People: Partnership Opportunities Abound for HR and the Business Office
HR and Government Relations: Partnering on Public Policy
We Are Not the Enemy: Positioning HR as a Trusted Ally
The Higher Ed IT Workforce Is Changing … How Can HR Help? (p. 34)

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