Any business with employees should have an employee handbook. An employee handbook is a document that outlines a company’s policies, permitted and prohibited behavior and a description of the company’s mission. While there is no legal requirement for employers to have a handbook, there are laws mandating that employers provide certain information to employees in writing.
Why Is an Employee Handbook Beneficial?
An employee handbook allows an employer to communicate essential information to employees in an efficient and consistent way. It explains and clarifies expectations on both sides. If any internal concerns or conflicts arise, the handbook clearly lays out the proper steps to take towards resolution. A handbook may also offer an employer protection in a lawsuit by demonstrating employees were on notice of the rules and the employer had appropriate internal complaint and investigation procedures. However, a poorly drafted employee handbook could also be used to establish liability against an employer or inadvertently create an employment contract with the employee.
What Should Be Included in an Employee Handbook?
There is no standard employee handbook. Provisions will vary depending on the size of the company, type of business and location. An attorney can help customize a handbook for a business to ensure it complies with all laws and unique circumstances of the workplace.
There are several common provisions.
- Welcome and company overview. The introduction of a handbook often provides the company’s history and mission statement. The purpose is to give employees insight into the company’s goals, essential core values and what to expect going forward.
- Work hours/attendance. Employees should be given information regarding scheduled hours, timekeeping and overtime policies, meals and break periods, and procedures and consequences related to unexcused lateness or absence.
- Pay. The handbook should state how and when employees are paid, including options for receiving pay. In addition, it should outline any policies regarding raises and bonuses.
- Use of company technology. It is important to establish policies regarding the use of company computers, email and phones for personal reasons while on company time. In addition, where employees have access to work emails and phones outside of work hours, they must be informed of company policies regarding working off hours. Note that employers may have to pay nonexempt employees for time spent checking emails or answering calls outside of work hours. Employers should also have policies regarding the issuance of company devices, such as cellphones and laptops. Cybersecurity policies are also useful and should apply in the office as well as to any devices used outside the office, whether owned by the employee or the employer.
- Safety. Many businesses are subject to the Occupational Safety and Health Act and similar state laws. The employee handbook should detail any safety rules and procedures for reporting accidents and dangerous conditions.
- Disclaimers. As noted previously, an employee handbook could, in certain circumstances, create a contractual relationship between the employer and employee. To avoid this, the employer should make sure the handbook includes an explicit disclaimer that the handbook does not create an employment contract and the employee’s employment is at-will, meaning that either party can terminate the employment for any reason at any time.
- Discipline and termination. The handbook should include the employer’s policies and procedures regarding discipline and termination. It should also describe the prohibited conduct that may result in discipline and termination. However, employers should also explicitly reserve the right to discipline or terminate employees for reasons not described in the handbook.
As stated above, employee handbooks should clearly explain prohibited conduct and the company’s policies regarding responding to such conduct. The most common types of prohibited conduct include:
- Discrimination. Federal and state (and sometimes local) laws prohibit workplace discrimination based on race, religion, sex, age, disability, and other protected factors. Often, these laws require employers to provide employees with a written notice of what constitutes discrimination and explain the employer’s policies and procedures related to discrimination complaints.
- Harassment. Harassment is a form of discrimination and is prohibited based on the same categories mentioned above. However, sexual harassment laws may have additional provisions with which employers and employees must comply, including specific requirements regarding what must be included in an employer’s written sexual harassment prevention policy, as well as mandatory sexual harassment prevention training for employees.
- Drug/alcohol abuse. The handbook should explain the employer’s policies regarding alcohol and drug testing and discipline.
Laws prohibiting discrimination and harassment typically require that employers have written policies and procedures for employees to make an official complaint. The handbook must explain how employees can report violations of these laws and what steps employers will take to investigate complaints. In some cases, a written policy can limit the employer’s liability.
The employee handbook should also outline any employment benefits the company offers. This may include health insurance, 401k/pension and time-off policies. Time-off policies may include holidays, vacation, sick and family leave, and any other permissible leave time. Employers must specify when time off is paid or unpaid, how time is accrued and what happens to unused time. Employers must be cautious when constructing its leave policies because several laws, like the Family Medical Leave Act, mandate that employers follow certain procedures when granting or denying time off.
Employee handbooks are valuable to any business. However, they must be drafted correctly and regularly updated to be effective. An attorney can assist in developing a handbook that complies with all applicable laws and helps employers and employees understand their rights and obligations.
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