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Employment Law Basics for Nonprofits

Understanding the basics of employment law is important not just for an organization’s leaders, but also for managers who oversee employees within the organization. Having a basic understanding of employment law is important because it:

  • Helps to ensure your organization is in compliance

  • Allows leadership and managers to actively engage in risk management for the organization

  • Ensures fair and ethical treatment of all team members

  • Contributes to a positive workplace

  • Provides managers with increased confidence in their ability to manage employees compliantly

When considering employment laws, it’s important for all individuals within your organization who are in a leadership or management position to understand the following:

  • Non-Exempt (Hourly) Employee Timekeeping

  • Rest Breaks & Meal Periods

  • Overtime

  • Time Off

  • Leaves of Absence

  • Workplace Injury - Health & Safety

  • Harassment and Discrimination

  • Managing Employee Relations

  • Discipline


Non-Exempt (Hourly) Employee Timekeeping

Part of being a supervisor means tracking, approving and being aware of hourly employees’ time reporting. Supervisors should know which of their employees are hourly or non-exempt. Supervisors should do a detailed review of their hourly employees’ timesheets to ensure they comply with state and federal laws, and that they are properly compensated when they work overtime.

If employees are not properly compensated there can be a cost penalty to the employer, so it’s imperative that anyone in a supervisory position understand both state and federal laws related to timekeeping.

Rest Breaks & Meal Periods

Every supervisor should know and follow the rules for rest breaks and meal periods. It is important that employees take breaks, and that those breaks are truly duty-free. It is also important for supervisors to know that rest breaks count as hours worked and do not need to be recorded on timecards.

Supervisors should schedule work assignments with the expectation that employees working three and a half hours or more will take the duty-free rest breaks they are entitled to and encourage their employees to do so. Failure to provide a rest break results in the organization having to compensate the employee for one hour of work time at their rate of pay.

In addition to rest breaks, employers may not employ an employee for more than 5 hours without providing the employee with a meal period of not less than 30 minutes. However, if the work period is no more than 6 hours the meal period may be waived by mutual consent. Similarly if an employee’s shift is no more than 12 hours the second meal period may be mutually waived so long as the first meal period was not waived. 

Rest and meal breaks are important to employee productivity. Data shows that employees who take appropriate rest and meal periods have increased task attention, productivity and efficiency as well as reduced health problems.


Overtime rules are important for supervisors to understand, especially if any of their direct reports are non-exempt employees. Overtime rules do not apply to salaried employees, as they are compensated their salary regardless of how many hours it takes them to complete their job. 

Overtime for non-exempt employees is based on actual hours worked; vacations, holidays, sick days, or any leave of absence will not be considered hours worked for the purpose of overtime calculations. It’s important for supervisors to understand that if overtime is worked, it must be paid out to the employee even if the overtime hours were not authorized.

Overtime requirements differ from state to state, with California’s overtime requirements being the most strict.  If a supervisor has non-exempt employees working remotely, it is important to know and understand the overtime requirements and laws for each state employees are living and working in.

Time Off

Time off is important to employee wellness. Supervisors should ensure they are supporting employees in taking time off. If they have staff that are not taking time off, it’s important that supervisors talk with the employees about it.

Remember: rested employees are more productive employees. Taking vacations can reduce stress, help prevent burnout, and promote work-life balance. Therefore, supervisors should encourage their reports to use their accrued time off each year.

Leaves of Absence

As part of their employee benefits and compensation, organizations should offer their employees a variety of leave options. Policies about each type of leave should be outlined in the organization’s employee handbook for employees and supervisors to reference when needed.

Best practice is for employees anticipating the need for a leave of absence to notify their supervisors or Human Resources as soon as possible, however this advance notice isn’t always possible. As a supervisor, however, it is your role to support employees requiring a leave of absence and work with Human Resources to accommodate your employees’ needs.

Workplace Injury - Health & Safety

Worker’s compensation laws provide medical care and compensation to injured workers on a no-fault basis. Since a supervisor is generally the closest connection to the employee, it is important that supervisors be aware of the basics surrounding worker’s compensation so they can assist in the process should an injury occur.

Generally speaking, to be compensable as worker’s compensation, the injury must “arise out of and in the course of employment”. As a general rule, employees are not covered during normal commute time, however exceptions may exist when the employee is on the employers premises (such as the parking lot) or if the employee is performing work during the commute (e.g., stopping at the bank to make a deposit as a part of their job duties).

While supervisors aren’t expected to be experts on worker’s compensation laws, their assistance is usually required in order to follow the appropriate procedures and processes for workplace injuries. One of the responsibilities often placed on supervisors is that of documentation. When an employee reports a workplace injury, supervisors often need to ensure that all facts are obtained and documented as soon as possible from all parties involved. This is important not only for the worker’s compensation claim, but also to ensure action can be taken to improve safety measures and prevent future accidents

Harassment & Discrimination

Discrimination and harassment are illegal, costly and disrespectful. Managers and supervisors have a duty of care to protect the risk of both employees and the organization. 

There are various federal and state laws that prohibit employers from discriminating in employment based on a variety of factors. These federal and state laws help create a workplace where employees are treated with respect and dignity, and it is within the scope of responsibilities for supervisors to help ensure that inappropriate workplace behavior and unlawful harassment are reported immediately.

Managing Employee Relations

When conflicts within teams arise, the supervisor is often the first individual to be made aware. Given this, it is important for supervisors to understand how to identify conflict and how to address it in a timely and appropriate manner. The quicker an employee relations issue is addressed, the better it is for everyone.

Conflict can be caused by many things, such as different points of view, communication style differences, or even bullying and harassment. It is important for supervisors to address conflict appropriately by gathering all pertinent information, listening to all parties involved, documenting the incident, and consulting management or Human Resources if necessary in order to develop a comprehensive solution.

Employee relations, if left unaddressed, can become costly to the organization. Interrupted operations, decreased productivity, and damage to morale are just some of the ways conflict can hurt an organization. Additionally, conflicts that are a potential harassment or discrimination issue can have legal consequences that are damaging and costly to the organization.


No one ever wants to take disciplinary action, but at times it becomes necessary. Your organization’s employee handbook should outline standards of conduct and disciplinary procedures. It’s important for supervisors to be familiar with these policies and refer to them, in addition to consulting with management and Human Resources, when considering disciplinary action.

When disciplinary action must be taken, it is important for supervisors to document everything, including the employee’s action(s), the employee’s narrative, and notes from every conversation had with the employee about the incident. This documentation can be used to help guide the decisions made when taking disciplinary action.


Ensuring supervisors and those in management positions understand the basics of employment law is critical for organizations of all sizes. Well-trained and informed supervisors no only decrease risk for the organization, but they help to ensure the workplace is safe, supportive, and productive for all employees.

Does your organization need to provide better training to its supervisors? Reach out today to learn more about Cause Capacity’s Workshops and Training offerings.


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