Intimidated by the process of creating an employee handbook? Maybe you’re pretty certain you don’t need one?
Many employers have few written policies at all. Others may have a few written policies that have been circulated to some employees, but not to all. Maybe your company has a written handbook of sorts, but you have given little consideration – at least lately – to whether the policies fit together into a cohesive and consistent package.
- Welcome Your Way. A handbook provides an opportunity for you to formally welcome new employees, introduce the company and its history, and set early and ongoing expectations –in your words, and on your terms (as long as you clearly remind employees that their employment is “at-will”; see item #7 below for further discussion on this topic).
- Centralize Important Information. Grouping the company’s policies together ensures that each employee receives a copy of all of the company’s relevant policies. It also provides a centralized place for employees to reference for commonly requested information, such as payday and paid time off (“PTO”) information.
- Create a Key Legal Defense. Handbooks distributed to and signed by employees can support an employer’s legal defense in the event of a dispute with an employee. Maintaining an up-to-date handbook and copies of all signed acknowledgements is an initial step in any legal defense. Handbooks should be reviewed by experienced counsel and updated at least annually to ensure compliance with state and federal law.
- Review Procedures. Assembling a handbook requires you to go through the exercise of analyzing company policies and procedures to ensure that common and key issues (e.g., such as how the company will address a complaint of sexual harassment in the workplace, or how the company will store and protect its proprietary data) have been raised and discussed. It forces the company to examine how an issue will be addressed before it occurs, and it clarifies who employees can turn to for help when they want to report a workplace violation or obtain workplace-related assistance.
- Ensure Legal Compliance. Legal requirements for disclosure can be satisfied in an employee handbook. Certain equal employment opportunity (“EEO”) policies, such as anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, disability policies, and procedures to govern investigations of workplace complaints are highly recommended, if not required, to be in writing. In addition, employees must be informed whether they are “exempt” or “non-exempt” when it comes to eligibility for overtime pay.
- Create Consistency. Policies should never contradict one another. What is said and what is done should be one and the same. Written, consistent policies and procedures, such as an anti-harassment policy and a complaint investigation procedure, increase the chances that employees will use the desired procedure, and the likelihood that the employer will respond, properly and timely.
- Assert Workplace Rights and Set Disclaimers. The employer should reserve the right to revise the handbook at its discretion, and may wish to reserve additional rights in its handbook, such as the right to conduct background checks, implement drug testing or screening, or conduct searches of the workplace. Further, to minimize the risk that a court will treat a handbook as an employment contract and a modification of the “at-will” employment relationship, all employers should include an opening disclaimer noting that nothing in the handbook creates a contract of employment.
- Avoid Payment for Unused PTO. Everyone likes vacation, but paying for accrued and unused vacation can impact an employer’s bottom line. A North Carolina employer may set policies in its employee handbook that enable forfeiture of unused PTO in the event an employee is terminated. Should an employer fail to set such a policy in its handbook, a terminated employee may be entitled to payment for unused PTO.
- Protect Yourself from Employee Romances in the Workplace. Surveys report that close to half of all employees have been involved in a workplace romance and 25% of those romances involve a superior. Employers must address this issue. First, because workplace romances may foster distrust and dissatisfaction, both between the involved parties and among other coworkers. Moreover, this is where a well-crafted employee handbook is critical, these office relationships can expose the employer to liability for harassment claims. The company should have a clear policy as to actions taken in the event of a workplace romance, and those to be taken in the event of a harassment claim (See our prior blog post for a discussion on steps to take to address sexual harassment in the workplace).
- Safeguard Against Social Media Mistakes. By now most of us have a reasonable understanding of the benefits and burdens of social media. Employees’ inappropriate use of social media carries risks for the company, such as disclosure of confidential information, harassment, and privacy violations. If the company encourages employees to participate in social media for marketing or other business purposes, it should adopt a separate policy to establish guidelines for such use.
Many employment issues can be avoided or minimized if the company takes the time to prepare an employee handbook.
If we can put our experience to work for you in helping craft a tailored employee handbook that fits your company’s needs, just let us know.
Our next blog post will address legal issues that may arise throughout the hiring process. In the meantime, let us know if we can help.