• Necessity of Employee Handbooks
  • April 29, 2004
  • Law Firm: Short Cressman & Burgess PLLC - Seattle Office
  • Although employers are not legally required to maintain employee handbooks, employers should be aware that certain policies contained in a handbook can offer protection to the company in the event of a lawsuit or other employment dispute.

    Employment policies typically found in handbooks can be divided into two categories: (1) those employment policies that describe procedures to employees, and (2) those "protective provisions" that can defeat liability of employment claims if employees are given proper notification of the policy and the company follows the policy.

    Employment policies that describe procedures are based on each company's practices. These policies are explained for the employee's information in the handbook. Typical policies in this category include such items as vacation accrual, sick leave, working hours and overtime policies, disciplinary and termination provisions, company standards and rules, and leave benefits.

    "Protective policies" are those which may protect the employer from liability in the event of a lawsuit or other employment dispute. It is prudent for all employers, irrespective of size, to have an employee handbook which, at the very least, includes protective policies.

    The most significant protective policies pertain to reporting policies and procedures for harassment and discrimination claims. By having such procedures in place in an employee handbook, employers may be able to avoid claims when an employee fails to utilize the written procedure in place. For example, in 1998 the United States Supreme Court held that an employer could defeat a sexual harassment claim by establishing that the employer maintained a sexual harassment reporting policy and procedure and that the employee failed to use it. Since the Supreme Court's decision, sexual harassment policies are routinely included in every employment handbook. Other protective policies typically include: anti-harassment policies (based on age, race, pregnancy, religion, national origin); anti-discrimination policies; Family and Medical Leave Act provisions; drug testing policies; and a statement that employment is "at-will" and terminable by the employer or employee at any time.

    To ensure maximum protection to the employer, employees should be asked to sign a form stating that they have received and reviewed the handbook. Antiharassment and anti-discrimination policies should be separately acknowledged in writing by the employee.

    An employee handbook need not be elaborate or expensive to create, but could be invaluable in the event of an employment dispute.