An employee handbook sets the tone for your business. The manual is one of the first documents a new employee receives in the on-boarding process. More importantly, having an employee handbook can minimize liability and avoid litigation, and help employees understand company policies and expectations.
An effective employee handbook is a policy manual that clarifies what is important to the business and helps keep staff informed and happy.
If your business does not have an employee handbook, you need one. While creating an employee handbook may be daunting, having one can save your business hours of headaches and thousands of dollars that come from unclear or misunderstood employment policies and procedures.
What should an employee handbook include?
Here at ten things that should be in an employee handbook (plus a bonus item) and 5 things that should not be included.
1. General employment information
The employee handbook sets the tone for the employment relationship. Include information about the company’s history and mission and provide a general overview of the business. The employee handbook should contain information about necessary policies relating to eligibility for employment, job classifications, employee records, referrals, job postings, resignation and termination procedures, job transfers and relocations, and union information, if applicable.
2. Applicable laws
Federal, state, and local laws need to be understood, adhered to and posted where required and appropriate. The U.S. Department of Labor spells out specific requirements for employers.
If your business operates in multiple states, different employee handbooks may be required for each state. Also, include information about compliance with anti-discrimination laws and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
Cannabis is a hot topic that might need to be addressed in the employee handbook, depending on where the business operates. Consider whether cannabis is legal in your state or city but understand that it is still illegal at the federal level. Even though the Americans With Disabilities Act requires that employers make reasonable accommodations for qualified workers, marijuana possession remains a federal crime.
3. General information on work schedules
The FLSA does not mandate meal breaks or rest breaks for employees, but many states do. And when employers do offer breaks, the FLSA places certain restrictions on employers, such as whether break time is paid or unpaid, and whether break time must be counted towards overtime hours.
Also include information on policies and procedures regarding attendance, tardiness, and overtime. Overtime information is particularly important for employees in accounting firms who may be asked to put in long hours during tax season.
Are employees expected to travel for work? Include a section about how to account for travel time and work completed while out of the office.
4. Leave policies
Employees will have questions about parental leave, bereavement leave, and leaves of absence. These should all be addressed in the employee handbook.
5. Standards of conduct
A business should have policies in place regarding expected standards of conduct for employees, disciplinary procedures, and policies regarding harassment and discrimination. These policies should be outlined in the employee handbook.
6. Employee benefits
Employee benefits are an essential part of the employer-employee relationship. Include information about employee benefits offered by the business and how to access them.
7. Safety and security policies and procedures
This section should include the employer’s statement on equal opportunity and zero tolerance for illegal discrimination, as well as the process for reporting and responding to these claims and the fact that employees will not face discipline for reporting claims.
Address how the business will create a safe working environment and employee responsibilities for following safety and security policies and procedures as they relate to physical safety, unsafe conditions, and potential hazards, as well as cybersecurity and where and how to report accidents.
8. Conflicts of interest
The employee handbook should include a section on conflicts of interest, stating that employees are expected to act in the sole interests of the employer. Recognizing that conflicts of interest can and do arise, also include information on how conflicts of interest should be addressed.
9. At-will employment language
Most employees are “at will” and the employee handbook should confirm this status. Be careful not to inadvertently compromise “at will” employment with a poorly worded employee handbook that could be construed as an employment contract or create an implied employment contract.
10. Communication information
Address social media use, cybersecurity issues, the extent to which personal devices can be used during work time, and the use of employer-owned devices for personal matters.
Bonus item – notice and Disclaimer and Acknowledgement of Receipt
The employee handbook should include an acknowledgment of receipt that is removed and kept by the employer once the employee has read and understood the contents of the employee handbook. The employee handbook should stay with the employee. The employee handbook should also state that nothing in the manual shall be construed to create a contract of employment and that the handbook cannot address every issue that could arise in the workplace.
What not to include
While there is plenty that should be included in an employee handbook, certain things do not belong.
1. Strict or generic guidelines and disclaimers
Avoid strict or generic guidelines and disclaimers in the employee handbook. This allows for the use of discretion and can accommodate unique situations.
2. References to regular employment as “permanent”
Referring to employment as “permanent” could inadvertently create a contract or guarantee of employment. Avoid using the work in an employee handbook.
3. Promises of “due process”
Due process has a very specific legal meaning that should not be used in an employee handbook. There may be exceptions for references to disciplinary actions or grievances.
4. Outdated laws and policies
Many employers do not have the resources to review their employee handbook regularly. Nevertheless, an out of date employee handbook can cause confusion among employees and expose the business to litigation, liability, and business disruption.
Review the employee handbook annually and make changes to reflect current laws and workplace culture.
5. Overly strict social media policies
Employers do not want employees to bad-mouth them on social media. But a complete prohibition of employee speech that could reflect poorly on the employer could violate employee rights, especially under the National Labor Relations Act. Suggest that employees who discuss their employer on social media include a disclaimer that the post is the personal opinion of the employee and does not necessarily represent the stance of the employer on the subject.
Creating an employee handbook can be daunting. Treat the process with the respect it deserves and make policies as clear as possible. Don’t assume that everyone will read the employee handbook cover-to-cover, so make it easy to navigate with clear headings and a table of contents.
Try to keep the employee handbook no longer than 30 to 40 pages. If it is too long, it won’t get the attention it deserves.
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