Lawsuits and Liability: Protecting Your School (w. S. Maris) [7FMS Ep. #37]

by Daniel Patterson

 

How do you protect your school from lawsuits? Or, from an accusation?

How do you make sure that your school is protected legally? That you are?

How do you provide a safe working environment for team members?

How do you protect your students?

In this episode, we’ve invited Stephanie Maris back to the podcast… and she gives a lot of advice about protecting your school from liability.

Click below to listen to the episode.

 

 

Or, check out the video version of the podcast:

 

 

 

Transcript

Click here to download the transcript.

Here’s what we cover in the episode:

  • Critical liability issues that studio owners should prepare for
  • How to protect your school against these liability issues
  • When & where should we post an anti-harassment policy?
  • How to handle allegations regarding physical contact with a student
  • How to protect your students (other than obvious ones, like background checks)
  • Done for you “employee handbooks”
  • It’s not “Big Brother” or overkill to enact these things… why it’s important

We’d love to hear from you… what was your big takeaway this episode? What questions do you have?

We won’t know unless you reach out and tell us!

You can do so by contacting us here.

Furthermore, if you’d like to learn more about Stephanie or have questions, she can be reached here.

 

Disclaimer: Nothing in this podcast should be construed as giving anyone specific legal advice and are intended for informational purposes only.  This informational material is not intended, and must not be taken, as legal advice on any particular set of facts or circumstances. You need to contact a lawyer licensed in your jurisdiction for advice on specific legal issues.

 

WRITTEN TRANSCRIPT

 

CRITICAL LIABILITY ISSUES THAT STUDIO OWNERS SHOULD PREPARE FOR

Daniel P 0:44

Hey, welcome back to the podcast. Today, we are joined once again by Stephanie for our Ask an Attorney series.

Today we’re dealing with something a little bit more serious.

We want to dive into how to protect a studio and the owners of a studio in delicate situations where accusations have come up, around different topics.

I’m being a little delicate here because I think this is a weightier, more serious issue.

Even right now I can think of a studio where an accusation was made of inappropriate conduct by an employee.

We brought Stephanie on because we’d like to have her perspective. So welcome back, Stephanie!

Stephanie M 1:30

Thank you. I’m happy to be back.

Nate S 1:32

Stephanie, love having you back on. Thanks again for joining us.

As always, I want to open with a really general question.

I’m hoping to get a 10,000-foot answer on this:

Can you describe some of the most important liability issues that we as studio owners (with employees & teachers) have?

As employers, what are the most important liability issues that we should be aware of out of the gate?

As an owner, Stephanie, I wasn’t even aware 13 years ago that I was liable for things – I was just a guy with a curriculum site to help students. So let’s start there if we can.

Stephanie M 2:33

I think you bring up a really good point that you don’t know what you don’t know.

A lot of entrepreneurs are just excited to dive in and get going with their business.

But it’s extremely important to consult important advisors in the arena – I think we talked a little bit about that the last time we spoke.

As business owners, you definitely need to develop a team of trusted advisors: this should include an attorney, a banker, insurance agents, and a CPA.

As it relates to liability, each of those advisors will be able to provide a perspective on different liabilities that you should be aware of. Specifically, when it comes to the topic at hand today, the different liabilities include discrimination claims in terms of hiring, firing promotions, and then also harassment claims (that can be harassment of employees, by other employees, customers, by your employees, or harassment from an owner to an employee).

Those are the bigger topics and liabilities that you would want to consult your advisors with to protect yourself as much as you can.

However, the fact of the matter is, if you’re in business long enough, you’re likely going to see one of these claims come up. Whether or not they have merit, it’s just a fact of business.

Unfortunately, we can’t make everybody happy all the time.

HOW TO PROTECT YOUR SCHOOL AGAINST THESE LIABILITY ISSUES

Nate S 4:27

Let’s focus for now on me as an owner and how to protect myself.

How do I put myself in the best situation to be able to address and be aware of every scenario?

Where do you want to start, Stephanie?

What can someone listening do right now, beyond finding that relationship with an attorney, to begin to better understand the pieces they need to put in place to be protected or be in the best position possible to handle a situation that’s uncomfortable?

Stephanie M 5:13

One of the most important things (which can be difficult, particularly for small owners) is documentation: making sure that you have clear policies at the outset in terms of what your harassment policy is.

It’s typically referred to as anti-harassment, and everyone knows that this type of behavior is not tolerated at the business.

In terms of complaints, it’s important that you have a documented grievance policy so that if you become aware of a behavior, or you feel uncomfortable because of the behavior of an employer, another employee, or customer, there’s a complaint process that you should follow.

All of those items should be documented. When you’re starting as a small business owner, you likely don’t have an HR person – the owner is probably your human resources person.

It can be easy to forget that it’s important either to have another witness in the room or permission to record the conversation / take notes, and send a follow up email that says, “Please let me know if I misunderstood anything that was said.”

You’re creating a paper trail in the event that anything escalates. You will need to go back and see what happened. This way, it’s more than just “he said, she said.”

I mean, obviously, the notes are your perspective on what was said, but it’s better than trying to recall a conversation a year later without any documented reference.

That’s one thing employers can do right now.

WHEN AND WHERE SHOULD WE POST AN ANTI-HARASSMENT POLICY?

Daniel P 7:25

Let me ask a question about something you said there.

You said you want to have this anti harassment policy to be known. In working with studios, or studio owners over the years, I’ve given advice around, “Hey, be careful how you introduce who your studio is to your prospective clients.”

I’ve even said things like, “Don’t put your policies right out front on your marketing website – wait until families show they’re interested in joining your studio.”.

How would you recommend revealing an anti harassment policy to someone in the studio when that’s something we really don’t want parents thinking about when they’re thinking about dropping their kids off at our studio?

What do you think would be the best way to introduce something like that?

Stephanie M 8:28

In terms of an anti harassment policy, typically, that would be in an employee handbook, or at your place of business.

If there are any state required or federal required notices (like being an equal opportunity employer) that need to be posted at your place of business, that could be a good place to post the anti harassment policy.

If people have a client handbook or a customer packet of information or something, it might be good to put it in there – give it to them when they sign up and agree to enroll their child for classes.

If there are certain things that they have to agree to, put the anti harassment policy there – because they also have to abide by that policy, right? You don’t want the parents or the students to engage in certain behaviors that would fall under that policy. But, you want them to abide by your policies as well, because that’s protecting your employer and your employees.

HOW TO HANDLE ALLEGATIONS REGARDING PHYSICAL CONTACT WITH A STUDENT

Daniel P 9:44

I think I have a follow up question to that.

This is a little bit more “real world” and I think it goes back to what Nate was asking earlier: as an owner, what can you do to protect yourself, the studio, the students in the studio…?

There’s a situation I became aware of where a parent came to the studio owner and said, “Our child said this conduct happened between one of your teachers and our child.”

They hadn’t gone to the police.

I’m curious, as an attorney, what advice would you give to a studio owner on how to handle that situation? That’s a very sticky situation. The parents were saying, “We don’t want to get the police involved… But this happened.”

That’s a tough situation. How would you respond to that?

Stephanie M 10:30

Well, you know, just based on the hypothetical that you’ve given, it’s extremely difficult to provide advice on that because it would definitely depend on the severity of the conduct.

The number one thing a studio owner should do is call their attorney. Whenever there is an allegation that inappropriate conduct occurred between an employee and client, particularly if the client is a minor, you need to get your attorney involved right away.

You also potentially need to refer to your insurance policies, because you may have some coverage for Employer Practices Liability. Under those insurance policies, you have to notify them of any potential claims within a certain time period for that coverage to kick in.

Those are a few steps that somebody should take in that situation. But I cannot give you specific advice on that.

HOW TO PROTECT YOUR STUDENTS (OTHER THAN OBVIOUS ONES, LIKE BACKGROUND CHECKS)

Daniel P 11:38

Let me ask you one other follow-up question.

Obviously, those situations are very volatile and each one would be unique.

What should the studio owner have done prior to any situation happening that would set them up to most protect themselves and the studio from liability of the conduct of an employee beforehand, other than the anti-harassment policy that you’d indicated earlier?

Stephanie M 12:14

Well, as I briefly mentioned, there may be certain insurance coverages that can help from the cost perspective. Talk to your insurance agent about that.

Also, have a good screening and hiring process – know who you are hiring and putting in the classroom with students.

Daniel P 12:51

In other words, it’s not an option to forgo background checks when you’re hiring someone – things of that nature?Just basic, basic common sense.

We call it common sense, but there are studios out there that have not run background checks.

Nate S 13:18

I’m sure we found a cut/paste method at BMF. I can’t tell you exactly where, how, or who did it. But I promise you, we were looking somewhere for a simple starting point.

Then we were revising with our own language around that to make it look and feel like us.

Is there somewhere people can find a free resource or template for an employee handbook?

Stephanie M 13:47

I’m sure there are lots of resources online that you could Google and find.

However, I think a better method is to find consulting companies that provide these types of services – they likely can provide it for a relatively inexpensive amount.

Again, you’ve got to view it as an investment in the future of your business. While it can be difficult to pay $500 (or whatever the cost may be) to put your employee handbook together, having the comfort of knowing that it came from a human resources company or a consultant who regularly works in the industry is important.

I think to help set somebody up to be in the best possible position, attorneys can write the employee handbook as well but from a cost efficient perspective. That’s probably not necessarily a route that some of you just starting out would be able to do, so I would recommend looking at some human resource consulting companies that provide those services.

DONE FOR YOU “EMPLOYEE HANDBOOKS”

Nate S 15:13

I love that. I just literally Googled Gusto, which is our virtual HR service we use (it does our payroll and helps with our tax obligations). The first thing that comes up is their Ultimate Employee Handbook Guide. That’s a downloadable resource.

That’s such an awesome piece of advice because you frame it in ways that make sense to us.

Number one: “Hey, we need to be efficient with our budget!”

Don’t go to your attorney and say, “Let’s write this thing together. Because you’re going to find yourself many 1000s of dollars in the hole asking for their time on something you can instead start in a more efficient way – like finding another resource that will be more affordable.

From there, you can go back to your attorney and say, “Hey, can I buy an hour of your time to review that document and highlight some areas?”

Stephanie M 16:18

I’m glad you went back to that, because I was going to clarify that after it is complete, you definitely should contact your attorney and say, “Hey, listen, we’ve just put together this employee handbook, would you mind taking a look and making sure that it’s in compliance with any state or federal regulations that we should be aware of?”

That way, they’re not writing the whole thing from scratch – they would be reviewing it and they may have some changes based on state or local laws.

There may be some specific things that need to be added based on your jurisdiction, so I would definitely recommend having your attorney review it.

But there may be a more cost efficient way to start out, as opposed to having an attorney draft the whole thing.

Nate S 17:13

I love it. Okay, I have a follow up question. I’m directing it back to you, Daniel, to see where your head’s at.

I first wanted to give a couple of little hacks that BMF has learned over the years.

First of all, we do everything in G Suite – it’s all Gmail, G docs, and G drive.

The very first thing we do when considering a new hire is create a Google folder for them.

We have hundreds and hundreds of folders for potential employees, and that begins the process of documentation.

Anytime something comes up – for example, maybe they communicate inappropriately in Slack to our director, or maybe we get an email complaint from a parent about some experience that they had in the classroom – we’ll just take a screenshot and drop it into the folder.

It’s not like this “big brother” thing. It’s exactly what you’re talking about. If down the line, we ever need to have a conversation, then we’re not relying on our memory.

That brings up a couple of little key points here.

This is why you have a company email address that your employees use, right? Because you want everybody to begin communicating in your actual business channel.

This is why a tool like Slack is so valuable to actually spend the money on rather than use a free service, because you can research all of the historical communication – which we’ve actually had to do a few times… we’ve had to go back to 2019 and take a look at what the conversation was between two people.

We’re all super busy. That tool is built specifically to help you do the research if and when you need it.

Stephanie, anything you want to add onto those thoughts in terms of other ways that you can quickly and simply document and organize these things?

Stephanie M 19:36

The only thing that I would add is in terms of classrooms – and I know everybody has a different opinion on this.

I know in recent years it’s become more popular, but having classes live streamed for parents to be able to watch gives you another avenue.

Most of those services, when something is live streamed, give you a recording of it. So, you can have a recording with everything that happened in the classroom.

As an owner or manager at your facility, you can’t be in every classroom if you have multiple classrooms. Being able to have that documented can end up being very helpful. If something comes up in the future, an allegation of some sort, you can go back and actually take a look.

IT’S NOT “BIG BROTHER” OR OVERKILL TO ENACT THESE THINGS… WHY IT’S IMPORTANT

Daniel P 20:36

I think that’s a good note to summarize and conclude this episode on.

What we’ve been talking about over the last 25 minutes is the “punch list” of things studio owners need to be aware of.

If there’s any kind of accusation from any of these parties to another…

Call your attorney first.

Make sure that you have some sort of written policy that you’ve run past your attorney and given to all parties involved with your studio.

Document everything. If you’re ever in a conversation that you think could have any potential value in the future, you should be recording that and making sure all parties present know it’s being recorded.

A good rule of thumb for any studio with a commercial location is having a surveillance system in place where things are actually being recorded.

Have we missed anything in the recap here? Was there anything else that we said in the past half hour that I’m forgetting?

Stephanie M 22:03

No, I don’t think so.

I think that was a pretty good summary of what we discussed. And, and as we said earlier, it’s not from a big brother perspective.

But… It’s very important. A lot of times in these cases, if it gets very far down the road, it is a matter of one person saying “this thing” happened, whereas another person said, “No, it didn’t. This is how it happened.”

That documentation can really make or break a case, depending on what’s there. I just can’t over-stress the importance of it.

And it’s something very easy that you can put in place right now.

Daniel P 22:46

I really hope whoever’s listening will let those words ring in their ear, because this could save people a lot of trouble in the future.

It’s not overkill, or a useless action – you really should be doing these sorts of things.

We pretty much focused on the owner’s perspective here, but the same thing would be true when it comes to protecting your employee.

There’s nothing else that we can do except to have this documentation in place to notify all parties of what the standards are in the studio.

That’s really the way to protect the employee as well.

 

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Daniel Patterson is a private teacher, writer, and marketing consultant for music schools. He began teaching in 2004. He co-founded and led marketing operations for a summer music camp that sees over 200 children each summer.

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