|August 22, 2014|
Previously published on August 12, 2014
An employee handbook is one of the most important tools employers have to communicate with employees about important workplace issues and can serve as an excellent defense to claims. While many employers have handbooks, the creation of a handbook is too often seen as a one-time event, as opposed to an ongoing process. To be relevant and effective, a handbook needs to be reviewed and updated frequently in order to ensure that it accurately describes company policies and procedures, addresses changing laws and regulations, and aligns with company objectives. Whether you are planning to update an existing handbook, or develop a new one, there are many important considerations to keep in mind. Following is a list of best practices to apply when creating and maintaining an employee handbook:
Legal Compliance. To ensure compliance with applicable laws and regulations and to mitigate risk in the event of litigation or government audit, a handbook must take into account federal, state and local laws and regulations. Laws vary by state and locality, but federal laws and regulations are uniform. Accordingly, an employee handbook should be written in compliance with federal workplace laws and regulations such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, to name a few. National Labor Relations Board rulings should also be taken into account. Other laws and regulations should be addressed on state-by-state and locality-by-locality bases.
Special Considerations for Multi-State Employers. It can be challenging, cumbersome and expensive for multi-state employers to maintain a handbook that complies with laws and regulations for each state in which employees are located. One approach to consider is maintaining a single handbook that addresses federal laws and regulations, with addendums for each state where employees are located. This allows employers to maintain a uniform set of policies and procedures, and also address state and locality-specific laws and regulations, without the need to extend state and locality-specific policies across state lines.
Affirm the Employment Status, whether "At Will" or “Just Cause.” A handbook should affirmatively explain the employment relationship. In an at-will relationship, the employer retains the right to make employment decisions at any time, with or without notice and for any or no reason, as long as it is not an unlawful reason. In an at-will relationship, it is important to note that the at-will employment relationship cannot be modified unless it is in writing, for that purpose, and is signed by [a specified position that would have such authority, such as the Executive Director or CEO). In a just cause relationship, the employee will not be discharged from employment without “cause,” which should be defined in the handbook.
Payroll and Benefits. Policies related to payroll, frequency of pay, overtime, payroll deductions and social security number privacy should be addressed, as well as those related to health, dental and other benefits.
Work Hours, Attendance and Leave. Hours and scheduling expectations, vacation, leave (military, maternity, jury duty, etc.), and sick day policies should be explained.
Employee Conduct and Use of Technology. You should address rules of conduct, including nondiscrimination, prohibited harassment, prohibited weapons, use of drugs and alcohol, and expected behavior toward coworkers. It is also important to explain rules related to employee technology use and equipment care, including email, Internet, social media, laptop computers and cell phones and affirm that employees should have no expectation of privacy in any communications over the employer’s communications equipment.
Shortened Limitations Period. Consider including a statement which states that employees are to bring any claims, suits or demands within the lesser of: (i) a specified period of time (should be no fewer than 180 calendar days) of the date that the employee knew or should have known about the basis for the claim, suit or demand, or (ii) the applicable statute of limitation.
Acknowledgement. Ask employees to sign an acknowledgement that they have received the handbook policies. If the Shortened Limitations Period is included in the handbook, that also should be included in the Acknowledgement, and the employee should affirm his/her agreement and understanding.
These are just a few of the considerations and policies that an employer should address in an employee handbook. Every employer's policies, procedures and culture are different, so every handbook should be tailored to an employer's unique circumstances and business objectives. Don’t adopt another organization’s handbook; you may inadvertently undercut an important declaration or what would otherwise have been a good legal defense. You should also have an employment attorney review the employee handbook because there are other policies that are required by law to be posted or communicated, such as notice of accommodation, and the employee handbook is where those should be included.
The creation of a new handbook, or revision of an existing one, is an ideal time to train employees regarding a company's policies and procedures, as well as the laws and regulations from which they were derived.