23 June, 2023

happy, successful manager wearing a white shirt Managers have an essential responsibility to create a safe, equitable and welcoming workplace for their employees. With the global talent shortage at a 16-year high, managers face increased pressure to maintain an environment that retains staff and attracts new talent.

In this fast-paced and highly dynamic employment landscape, business law offers a reliable framework for managers to make better-informed decisions that build trust among employees and prioritize stability at an organization.

“It is a business imperative for today’s leaders to have a working knowledge of labor and employment laws to ensure they make optimal decisions while minimizing and mitigating risks,” says Elizabeth Sheyn Brown, JD, who is general counsel and chief administrative officer at CSC Generation Holdings and an adjunct professor in the DePaul College of Law.

A foundational knowledge of the law empowers you as a manager to navigate legal complexities, mitigate risks and resolve conflicts effectively. At the same time, it can empower you to promote a work environment that makes employees feel respected and more inspired to produce innovative work.

Brown understands this first-hand: “As someone who has provided outside and in-house counsel for business leaders and companies, I have personally seen how having such knowledge helped them (and their companies) succeed—and how the lack of such knowledge caused negative financial [repercussions] and other impacts.”

How Legal Knowledge Helps Build Stronger Work Environments

“Business leaders who understand core employment laws can more confidently and safely manage others, face fewer lawsuits and experience a faster advancement trajectory,” said Philippe Weiss, JD, who is president of Seyfarth at Work and adjunct professor in the DePaul College of Law.

Weiss highlighted three pivotal areas where employment law expertise can have a transformative impact for managers:

  • Recognizing boundaries—By understanding the most recent equal employment opportunity laws, you can stay within the guardrails and delineate between risky and appropriate decisions or interactions.
  • Responding in the moment—Learning effective strategies for addressing potential discrimination, misconduct, safety lapses or accommodation difficulties empowers you to skillfully handle complaints and concerns in a legal and supportive manner, without overreacting, underreacting or compromising legal integrity.
  • Reducing complex laws to simple, actionable management—There are hundreds of overlapping local, state and federal employment laws that are subject to change within the current employee climate. Managers who can translate these regulations into consistent management decisions will create fairer and more transparent workplaces.

Managerial consistency is key. When managers demonstrate a reliable and uniform approach to applying policies, employees understand what is expected of them, leading to increased trust and a more stable work environment.

As a result, team members are more likely to produce innovative work that drives positive growth within the organization. In fact, a Gartner survey found that employees who perceived their work experiences as more fair improved their performance by 26%, and employee retention increased by 27%.

Prioritizing Safety for a Harm-Free Workplace

Beyond a stable environment, a workplace must also be a safe one. Managers who are careless or inconsistent in following safety regulations will find themselves at risk for lawsuits or, worse, risk physical or mental harm to their employees.

Nearly every U.S. workplace must comply with the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), whose standards are designed to protect workers from hazards and to create safe and healthy workplaces. Beyond OSHA, many industries must follow additional regulations specific to their area of work, such as communicating about hazardous materials, reducing noise exposure or having an emergency action plan ready to go.

Knowing and following these safety laws is not just a matter of compliance, but a responsibility with vital consequences.

Embracing Fairness by Effectively Handling Complaints

Even among the best of teams, conflicts are inevitable in spaces where people work closely together. Knowing labor laws will help you address concerns effectively; thinking like a lawyer can guide your approach:

  • Analyze the facts: Examine the details of the conflict, gathering relevant information to gain a comprehensive understanding of the situation.
  • Evaluate the legal implications: Consider how employment laws plus your company’s policies and regulations may apply, assessing the potential legal ramifications of the conflict.
  • Apply problem-solving skills: Utilize critical thinking to find fair solutions that reconcile conflicting interests while staying within legal boundaries.
  • Communicate effectively: Communicate clearly, using precise language and maintaining a professional tone to address the conflict and advocate for appropriate resolutions.

This is especially important if a manager must handle harassment or discrimination complaints under the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC oversees the laws that make it illegal to discriminate because of a person’s race, color, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, age, disability or genetic information. EEOC complaints are serious matters, and managers must ensure a fair and unbiased investigation.

The best managers do more than respond approximately to complaints—they actively cultivate a work environment where such issues are less likely to occur in the first place. Drawing on their knowledge of employment and anti-discrimination laws, these managers proactively implement preventive measures such as comprehensive training programs, clear communication channels, and strong anti-discrimination policies. They show, not just state, that their organization values respect and diversity.

Preparing for Team Member Leave and Accommodation Requests

Every manager needs to be prepared for requests under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Knowing the nuances of these laws makes it easier for managers to handle leave requests in a way that respects their employees’ rights while minimizing disruptions to their organization’s operations.

Under the FMLA, eligible employees are entitled to take unpaid leave for qualifying medical reasons, including the birth or adoption of a child, serious health conditions or to care for family members. The ADA meanwhile requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to help individuals with disabilities perform their job duties and to ensure that they have equal access to employment benefits and privileges.

For either type of request, managers need to engage in open communication with the employee, as well as with departments such as human resources. The manager should be ready to present options for reasonable accommodation options, know what resources are available to help and be able to communicate these options to the requestor and to the larger team.

Managers who possess a fundamental understanding of FMLA and ADA laws are better equipped to create solutions that not only meet legal obligations but also truly take into consideration the well-being of their employees.

How Knowing Business Law Can Advance Your Career

So far, we have delved into how legal knowledge empowers you as a manager to support your employees and benefit your employer. However, these skills can also have a lasting influence on your own professional growth and career advancement.

“Regardless of one’s profession or industry, the ability to personalize and target legal policy messages, confidently partner with attorneys and guide others towards compliance best practices all serve as powerful professional differentiators,” says Professor Weiss.

Besides the knowledge you add, legal training can improve your practical abilities to:

  • Communicate complex ideas clearly while also bridging the gap between legal professionals and nonlawyers.
  • Negotiate with confidence so that you can navigate contract discussions and secure more favorable positions.
  • Think with an analytical mindset, enabling you to approach problems methodically and arrive at informed decisions.
  • Be a stronger advocate, both for your own positions and for your team’s needs, so that everyone’s voice is heard.

An excellent way to add these skills is through a comprehensive legal education program that provides opportunities to practice negotiation, communication and more in a supportive environment.

The Role of a Master of Legal Studies in Effective Leadership

“Completing an online master of legal studies (MLS) program helps students expand their business and legal knowledge, which positions them to effectively work cross-functionally and to take on increasingly more senior and/or legal adjacent roles,” says Professor Brown.

For those who want to learn about the law, but do not plan to practice, a master of legal studies is an ideal option. Designed for professionals from a wide range of backgrounds, an MLS degree focuses on a basic understanding of the law and building crucial legal skills. Courses cover topics such as regulatory compliance, negotiation and communication, legal research and writing.

Managers should look for MLS curricula that include courses specific to law and organizational management. Some, like the online Master of Legal Studies from the DePaul College of Law, may even provide a concentration in business law that allow students to further tailor the degree to what business leaders need to know.

Also, look for a program that includes opportunities to practice skills within a collaborative environment. For example, in Professor Weiss’s “Communication and Negotiation” course, students and their peers engage in dynamic role-playing and other synchronous group activities to hone their skills in responding to workplace challenges.

“In order to credibly ‘talk the law’ within their organizations, our students engage in a series of small-group exercises built around realistic discrimination, transactional, government and general compliance situations,” he explained. Students also get the chance to practice serving as “compliance translators” and, over the term, their coursework contributes to a communications roadmap that they can integrate into their own managerial practices.

“Managers will have acquired the tools, skills and concepts to better cultivate a welcoming and safe environment, encourage innovative work, and position themselves as multi-faceted leaders,” says Weiss.

About Online Master of Legal Studies at the DePaul College of Law

The online Master of Legal Studies (MLS) from the DePaul College of Law provides professionals the knowledge and skills they need to navigate the complex legal landscape, understand legal research and collaborate with legal advisors.

Our curriculum covers essential legal topics such as research and writing, regulatory compliance, negotiation, communication, and organizational management. With three concentration options available in data privacy and cybersecurity law, business law, and general legal studies, students can tailor their education to their specific interests and career goals.

Courses are taught by dedicated faculty who are working lawyers and renowned legal scholars. They embed interactive learning components into the coursework, including simulation exercises, practice-based assignments, and real-time Socratic discussions, which allow students to hone their skills before applying them to their own workplaces.

Applicants from all backgrounds are welcome; no prior legal experience and no test scores are required to apply. Through our professional experience waiver, students can receive up to six credit hours based on their relevant and recent work experience, allowing them to earn their degree in a shorter time frame with only 24 credits.