Like most organizations, your organization probably needs to squeeze more productivity out of fewer employees these days. That may mean requiring some hourly employees to work overtime, even if they don't want to.

Federal rules allow you to require nonexempt employees to work overtime, as long as you pay them time-and-a-half for hours worked above 40 in a week. Some federal and state safety rules put limits on overtime, such as on truck drivers' road hours. And many unions negotiate caps on employees' mandatory overtime.

But, if handled incorrectly, mandatory overtime can smother morale, create management-employee tensions and spark legal disputes. Follow these five steps to prevent the issue from becoming a distraction:

1. Make clear during the hiring process that overtime can and will be mandated.

2. Draft an overtime policy that explains when overtime will be required. Document exceptions when employees can refuse overtime, such as illness or a death in the family. If you're flexible on the exceptions, prepare to be consistent with requests or you'll risk a discrimination lawsuit. That policy should also prohibit working off the clock.

3. Have employees sign a statement that says they understand the policy. Make sure supervisors understand it, too.

4. Ask supervisors to give as much advance notice as possible to employees when they know they'll need to work overtime.

5. Always ask for volunteers first before assigning mandatory overtime.

Final tip: Check your state overtime law, too; some have tighter restrictions. Find a description of all state overtime and minimum wage laws at www.dol.gov/esa/minwage/america.htm.

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