January 24, 2014

“Keep Off My Time Off!” How Much Employee Responsiveness Can You Expect After-Hours?

employee responsiveness is a priority for this woman

Frustrated doctors often complain that employees won’t respond after-hours, while the managers of equally-frustrated teams send us questions such as the following. How much off-duty employee responsiveness can employers (legally) expect?

“Can you provide some advice about how much time and responsiveness it’s fair to expect from employees while they’re at home and not scheduled to be on call? Our doctor constantly emails and texts us about office-related issues after hours and on weekends, with the expectation of immediate responses and decisions about work and CE planning matters. We appreciate how dedicated he is to the practice, and we know it’s hard to get planning done while patients are around – but at the same time, our time off is valuable, and sometimes these conversations involve the whole team texting back and forth for hours! We’re starting to resent our personal time being used for office business, and our spouses and families are angry. What can we do?”

If I tracked the top 10 questions asked by office managers, the list would contain several wage and hour and “work outside normal work hours” questions like this one. And, first and foremost, this is a wage and hour issue.

Let’s focus on your use of the word “constantly,” because that’s the most troubling point. Technically, every minute associated with work is supposed to be tracked and paid. The exception to this rule, brought to us by the Fair Labor Standards Act, is when an employee, such as an office manager, is properly classified as an exempt employee (link HERE). Employers may require exempt employees to respond no matter what they are doing, or as soon as possible. But 99% of your team does not qualify for exempt status!

“Suffering to work”

You said,

“Our doctor constantly emails and texts us about office-related issues after hours and on weekends, with the expectation of immediate responses and decisions…”

This easily establishes a pattern, and it sounds like non-exempt team members are being affected, too. Now, in HR, the legal definition for employment is to “suffer or permit to work.” While I chuckle every time I say “suffer to work,” it means what it means – and in your case, your doctor is at greater risk because there are texts and emails which prove the “suffering.”

Couple this with the fact there is no legitimate out-of-hours time tracking going on, and the problem is compounded. The doctor really can’t say how much or how little time it took for non-exempt employees to respond to all of his emails or texts, so he’s got a “text” book case (is there a pun there?) against him. An employee could conceivably come up with any number of hours worked, and make a claim for unpaid hours – and, even worse, if they prevail on the complaint, some of those hours could be awarded as overtime.

As a manager, then, your first job is to protect the practice, which includes keeping it in compliance with wage and hour rules. For this reason alone, you need to find a way to say something. And by say something, we both know that what I really mean is, “you need to take one for the team, and offer a couple of solutions along with the problem.”

So, what approach is best, and what solutions can you offer?

First, honesty: Tell your doctor about the issue and its impact. Keep it professional. “You know when you text people who are off, it means that they aren’t really off. I know it is part of my job to be here for you, but it’s not fair to everyone else to interrupt their family time. They like you and they like working here so much that they’re afraid to tell you – but it’s causing issues, and their families are frustrated.”

If you include the wage-and-hour stuff at this point, you may consider prefacing it with, ‘No one here really knows all this or is complaining about the wages, but we also need to make sure we’re not setting ourselves up for problems…”

Then offer a solution: “This seems to happen most often when we are planning trips to seminars and Dental Association meetings. I’d like to solve the problem. If you will tell me what you need in advance, I’ll coordinate with everyone at the end of the day after we’re done seeing patients, and get you all the details.”

Next to last: I’m guessing that your doctor may also not be aware of the regulations regarding seminars and travel/CE pay (link HERE) (because the majority of practices are getting this wrong!). It may be one more headache, but he’ll be better off knowing the rules.

Finally, keep in mind that your doctor is probably just an “always on” type of person, and just trying to get things done. Be supportive, give them space to digest the issue, and be ready to offer other solutions and information so they can come to see your – and the team’s – point of view.

Friendly Disclaimer: This information is general in nature, and is not intended to replace good counsel about a specific issue with either your attorney or your favorite HR expert. And as always, your dental or medical employee handbook needs to contain correct, up-to-date information in compliance with wage and hour laws. Concerned about whether your office manual is compliant? Please call CEDR HR Solutions at 866.414.6056.

Friendly Disclaimer: This information is general in nature and is not intended to provide legal advice or replace individual guidance about a specific issue with an attorney or HR expert. The information on this page is general human resources guidance that is believed to be current as of the date of publication. Note that CEDR is not a law firm, and as the law is always changing, you should consult with a qualified attorney or HR expert who is familiar with all of the facts of your situation before making a decision about any human resources or employment law matter.

Leave a Reply

Please note: CEDR Solutions specializes in providing expert HR support to owners and operators of independently owned medical and dental practices.