Thursday, May 15, 2014

What’s in Your Handbook?

Your Employee Handbook, that is…


While there is no law that requires employers to have an employee handbook, it’s a good idea to inform your employees upfront about your expectations, rules and policies in a consistent and uniform way. A properly written handbook can provide your company with legal protections. You can find many opinions on whether you should even have a handbook, or how long or short it should be if you do have one. However, given the sheer scope and number of employment laws and regulations, saying too little can be as risky and saying too much.

To that end, let’s look the basics that should be included in an employee handbook.

Disclaimer: This may be the most important part of any handbook. In fact, it should be front and center (and maybe even at the end!). Make it bold and obvious. You want to clearly state that the handbook is not a contract or guarantee of employment and that employment is at-will (Google it!). Also state that the company reserves the right to change, add or delete items with or without notice. A statement that the handbook supersedes all other previous statements of policy and procedure and is the ultimate word on company policy should also be included.

Introduction: This is where you give a brief description of the company, its mission, vision, values and goals. You can give a corporate history and describe your product, services and customers.

Employee Definitions/Classifications: Clearly define your company’s definition of full-time, part-time, temporary (and if appropriate, independent contractor) status. Never use the word "permanent," as it has legal implications that you do not want to convey. Likewise, having a "probationary" period or defining any employee as probationary is not recommended. The implication can be that if the employee makes it past the probationary time, she will be permanent. Since employment is at-will (unless you’re in Montana) there’s really no need for a probationary period; it doesn’t allow you any more flexibility in terminating someone’s employment than you have at any other time.

Define the Work Week: State the work week as the seven-day period during which you calculate overtime. Don’t define the work week as Monday through Friday; that could possibly limit your ability to ask employees to work weekends or past normal hours on weekdays.

Pay/Performance Appraisals/Promotions: Spell out your methods of payment; every week or every two weeks or whatever. You can include your overtime policy, and discuss your pay structure. You can also talk about how the performance appraisal process works and how promotions are decided or granted.

General Policies and Procedures: Define and list all the basics. You can cover dress codes, pay periods, time sheets, and cell phone use at work or while driving; employees’ use of computers, e-mail, or voice mail, and anything else that is important to your business.

You have a choice to highlight the policies, but include the procedures - the "how-to" of each policy - in another document (i.e., a policies and procedures manual). This method can help keep your handbook to a manageable size, while still giving employees specifics on how to abide by those policies. Just be sure that all employees receive (and acknowledge receipt) of procedures manuals, as well.

Sexual Harassment/Discrimination/EEO Policies: You must be clear and specific that your company has no tolerance for harassment or discrimination of any kind. Be sure to include multiple ways for employees to register complaints and different people to whom they can complain. Define a clear procedure for employees to report such behavior, as well as your obligations as an employer. State your policy on equal employment opportunity.

Leave Policies: Whether planned leave or attendance issues, covering this topic early in the employment relationship is recommended. Include policies on all types of leave that your company offers or permits, such as vacation, sick days, jury duty, bereavement or other personal leave. If leave is only available to some employees (full-time vs. part-time, for instance), clearly state and define who is eligible for what and when. Making sure you establish that employees must have leave approved ahead of time is important.

Include federal (FMLA) or state mandated leave policies in this section.

Benefits: While important to include, there is no need to provide all of the details in your handbook, as it’s not unusual for details of benefits to change from year to year. You don’t want to have to revise your handbook every time you change your benefit plans.

Disciplinary Policies: Never the most popular section of a handbook, it is nevertheless, essential. Define employee misconduct and explain the consequences of such misconduct, but never lock yourself into a plan of action by using absolute statements. Use "may", "could" rather than "will". Reserve your right to judge incidents on a case-by-case basis to determine appropriate action. Also, don’t limit the scope of misconduct to just what’s included in the handbook. Include a statement like "misconduct includes, but is not limited to…..".

Grievance or Problem-Resolution: You should spell out the procedures for any employee with a work-related grievance. Knowing what options are available will help resolve issues quickly. It also sends a good message to employees, letting them know that you care about their views of a difficult situation.

Acknowledgement: In order to protect your business, and verify that your employees are aware of what is expected of them, and what they can expect of you, it is important to include an acknowledgment page that the employee signs, dates and returns. The acknowledgement should state that the employee understands it is their responsibility to read and follow the policies.
Since many states or localities have specific employment-related laws and regulations, be sure to include those in your handbook. Many of them mirror, or expand on similar federal laws; you can put them in those specific sections.

Keep your handbook up to date and make sure you walk the talk. If you have a policy covering a particular topic, follow your policy – consistently. It can be said that the only thing worse than not having a carefully crafted handbook or policies manual, is not following it!

Finally, have your newly written or revised employee handbook reviewed by an attorney; preferably an attorney who specializes in employment related matters. While never perfect, you want your handbook as airtight as possible.

Give your employees the roadmap they need to focus on their job, and provide yourself with the structure and protection a handbook can provide.

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