It’s easy to overlook the importance of keeping the employee handbook current. Here’s a checklist you can use to make sure you’ve got all your bases covered.
A clearly-written, well organized handbook lays out the company’s expectations for employees. It also makes clear what the employee can expect from you.
And when done correctly, it can protect the employer from all sorts of legal headaches.
Sounds simple, right? Maybe not. Badly written or incomplete handbooks have gotten firms in trouble for everything from discriminatory hiring practices to unwittingly creating an employment contract.
Almost every state in the union regards the relationship between employer and employee as “at will.” And you don’t want anything in your handbook to endanger that status.
So you need to emphasize two key issues:
- all employees are employed at will, and thus, they can be terminated — for a non-discriminatory reason — at any time (except in union situations), and
- the handbook is not intended to be an employment contract.
You want to be able to attract the best employees possible, without discriminating on the basis of sex, religion, race, color, age, disability or national origin.
Thus, your policy needs to:
- clearly state that no promises made during the employment interview can negate the employment at-will concept
- recognize that applicants can’t be denied employment because of race, sex, religion or national origin
- state that providing false information during the employment process will be grounds for termination
- explain the drug and alcohol screening process
- explain that a reasonable accommodation will be offered to all employees covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
- explain that an accommodation can be refused if it constitutes an undue hardship for the company
- consider the impact of an accommodation on the ability of other employees to do their jobs, and
- explain when employees with alcohol and drug problems will be offered accommodation and when they won’t be.
No section of your handbook will come under closer scrutiny than the discharge policy.
Many employees who deserve to be fired collect huge wrongful discharge awards because the company fails to follow the steps called for in their policy.
Other firms have lost because they fired an employee for an offense that wasn’t listed in an exhaustive table of termination offenses.
Make sure your policy:
- specifies the type of behaviors that may result in immediate termination
- includes a disclaimer that other offenses not listed may also result in termination
- uses language such as “may be terminated” instead of “will be terminated.” It’s always better to allow for extenuating circumstances.
- offers employees the right to an appeal
- considers the accommodation requirements of an employee covered by the ADA
- gives the employee sufficient time to improve performance or modify unacceptable behavior
- includes a statement making it clear that no termination will violate your policies on age, race or sex discrimination, and
- lays out the normal steps of your progressive discipline procedures.
Discrimination and harassment
Obviously, this is one of the bedrock sections of any employee handbook.
The basics of any comprehensive policy:
- an overall statement of intent
- definitions of discrimination and harassment
- non-retaliation protections
- reporting procedures, and
- investigation and remediation procedures.
Here’s a no-brainer: You have every right to expect employees to be on the job, on time, every day.
Your policy should emphasize the importance of good attendance and spell out what can happen to those who are frequently late or absent.
Employees who’ve been terminated for poor attendance have won in court when they are able to show that the policy was unclear and not enforced consistently.
Make sure your policy:
- explains how absences are to be reported and the penalties for excessive absenteeism
- defines the difference between excused and unexcused absences.
- follows state and federal law concerning absences for jury duty
- takes into account the provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
- considers religious accommodation requirements before charging employees with unexcused absences
- considers the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act concerning absences for drug, alcohol or medical treatments, and
- explains that unexcused absenteeism has a negative effect on employees’ performance appraisals, promotions and continued employment.
Many companies, especially those whose employees regularly deal with the public, adopt dress code or appearance policies. Just make sure the rules don’t impose standards that can be considered discriminatory.
Your dress code should explain:
- your policy is based on legitimate business needs
- it takes into consideration safety factors such as working near machinery, chemicals or hazardous waste
- it does not force sex stereotypes upon employees
- when accommodation can and can’t be offered to an employee who objects to it because of religious convictions
- dress code violators will be dealt with according to your established disciplinary procedures, and
- you welcome employee input on the policy.