Providing clear expectations between employers, employees
If you employ five people, an employee handbook probably isn’t at the top of your priority list. But if you’ve grown beyond that size, then this article is most definitely for you.
A good employee handbook records the company’s rules and communicates them to your employees in an easy, understandable way. If a handbook is well drafted, it provides helpful information on what’s expected from employees and what they can expect from their employer. It can also provide the foundation for any employment decisions you need to make and – if the situation arises – form the backbone for the defense of many lawsuits brought against you by employees.
However, if it’s drafted poorly, it can be the foundation for an action against you.
A good employee handbook is a practical reference for employees that can provide answers to common questions, like leave policies and pay procedures. Putting your policies in writing reduces the odds of an employee complaining they never heard of the policy before. It can also improve morale and increase the consistency of the application of your policies.
First and foremost, a handbook should be legal. While a great policy won’t save the company if your procedure is illegal, an unlawful policy is just as problematic and even easier to prove because it’s printed. Thus, your company’s handbook should be written in light of federal laws such as Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (which apply to many employers); government contractors (and tire dealers can fall into this category) have even more requirements that must be followed.
Your employee handbook must also be compliant with the state and local laws within the areas in which you operate. For instance, states like California and Illinois are notorious for unusual laws that may be a stumbling point for unwary employers. Cities may even have their own ordinances that require additional provisions, such as non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or ban-the-box requirements.
Additionally, administrative agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the National Labor Relations Board have guidelines that a savvy employer should note.
Some handbook provisions vary from state to state and some will be based on the size and composition of your workforce. However, for most employers, your handbook should include at least the following provisions:
• An at-will employment disclaimer specifying that employment can be terminated at any time with or without notice or cause.
• Anti-discrimination and anti-harassment language setting forth the company’s commitment to maintaining a workplace incorporating the principles of equal employment, as well as how to report any incidents.
• Wage and hour information such as pay period, overtime and breaks.
• Attendance requirements and information regarding vacation or medical leave.
• Standards of conduct and performance, performance reviews and progressive discipline policies.
• Policies regarding employee safety specifying that threats of violence will be taken seriously and providing the procedures for armed intruders, as well as the company’s firearm policy (which will vary by state).
• Digital workplace guidelines specifying there is no expectation of privacy on company equipment as well as a carefully drafted social media policy.
• Benefit information, such as health insurance, life insurance, retirement plans, etc.
• Guidelines regarding the handling and protection of confidential or sensitive company or client information.
However, your handbook need not be a comprehensive, multi-volume tome of every single policy or procedure of the company. (If you find yourself describing how the TPS reports should be formatted, you’ve gone too far.) In fact, a handbook that is too long often becomes less effective because employees don’t take the time to read it.
Regardless of whether you’re a union employer, this language is relevant to your handbook. The NLRB has interpreted these rights very broadly and has found that many standard policies violate the NLRA because they might “chill” an employee’s right to discuss terms and conditions of employment or prohibit protected speech.
A few of the other issues you may want to pay particular attention to include the handling of criminal convictions, drug testing, same-sex marriages and benefits, and issues related to the legalization of marijuana.
When it comes to creating or revising your handbook, it’s best not to go it alone. Talk to an employment attorney who practices in the geographic areas in which you operate. While paying to ensure the lawfulness of your handbook may not be a priority, a good handbook is an investment and should be valued as such.
Once your handbook is completed, distribute it. It might go without saying, but even an incredible handbook can’t do its job if it’s not given out. Require signed acknowledgment of your handbook at the time an employee is hired and every time that it is significantly changed. Also, make sure it is accessible by your employees either on the company’s intranet or by asking management.
It is also essential to train your management team on the policies and procedures contained in the handbook, as well as those that are recorded elsewhere. This training ensures that your management knows the company’s policy and increases the odds that they will bring unusual situations to you or your human resources staff instead of making a well-meaning but problematic decision.
Don’t panic! While creating or revising a handbook can be a complex undertaking, you will be on your way to a useful (and legal) handbook if you keep these points in mind.
Susan Bassford Wilson is an attorney with Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete LLP, who advises and defends employers. She can be reached at [email protected]
The Fine Print: This column is made available by the lawyer and publisher for educational purposes only, to give you general information and a general understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice or to establish an attorney-client relationship. This column should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.