Issue: The danger of telling employees "Don't bother reading that; it probably doesn't apply to you."
Risk: Courts may view your action as a cover-up, sparking a misrepresentation lawsuit.
Action: Tell employees to read every form and policy completely before they sign; don't pick and choose parts that likely apply.
In your mile-a-minute workday, you may sometimes hastily ask an employee to sign a document while orally summarizing what it says. ("It's just our new sexual harassment policy" or "It says you're not participating in the health plan.")
But, as a new court ruling shows, such shorthand explanations or advising em-ployees which sections of a document to read could put your organization in legal jeopardy.
That's why it's important to tell employees to read everything on forms and policies before they sign. Don't play editor by telling them to skip certain parts because they probably won't apply.
Courts will side with employees who are victims of an employer's misrepresentation, even if the employer can argue that the "deception" was well meaning.
Recent case: When Duane Betterman signed a form to takeAct ( ) leave for depression, the HR manager told Betterman he didn't need to read one section of the form because it didn't apply to him. That section said employees who don't immediately return to work after the leave would be terminated.
The HR manager told Betterman to focus on getting well and not to worry about his job. But when Betterman's absence exceeded his, the company fired him.
Betterman sued under FMLA, claiming that the company intentionally misrepresented the leave terms. A jury sided with Betterman, awarding him $555,000 in damages, and an appeals court backed up the ruling.
It didn't matter that the employer misled Betterman out of concern for his well-being, the court said. The mere fact that it knew its statements were false was enough to show an intent to deceive.
Note: The employer could have avoided the issue if the HR director had required Betterman to read the entire form. (Betterman v. Fleming Companies Inc., 677 N.W.2d 673, Wis.Ct. App., 2004)
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