The importance of an employee handbook cannot be understated. As long as the handbook is drafted properly, and the policies are followed, an employee handbook can be used as both a sword and shield to protect the employer from liability.
As a shield, an employee handbook helps reduce potential liability. One of the greatest benefits of having an employee handbook is its potential to protect companies from employees’ legal claims. An employee handbook can be used to assist the employer in avoiding and defending against discrimination, harassment and wrongful discharge claims.
As a sword, the employee handbook allows employers to be proactive. An employee handbook should articulate the employer’s expectations by clearly describing the employer’s policies and procedures. This includes the actions supervisors and employees should take in the event that an employee has a problem or grievance. Employers should not wait until a lawsuit is filed before learning about what occurs at the workplace. In addition, one of the goals of an employee handbook should be to promote fairness and evenhanded treatment of employees by establishing uniform standards that can be applied by all employees.
For example, if the employee handbook clearly establishes a policy against harassment, it conveys that the employer is serious about protecting its employees. However, the protection only exists as long as the policy is being enforced. The employee handbook should also establish policies and procedures for handling harassment claims, including reserving the right to terminate the harasser. Thus, without a proactive sword, the employer may lose its shield.
Many employers believe that employee handbooks hinder flexibility. While this may be true of a poorly drafted handbook, a properly drafted handbook will actually incorporate a necessary degree of flexibility. However, the advantages of an employee handbook greatly outweigh their potential drawbacks.
Employee handbooks should be straight-forward and drafted in simple language. Legal jargon should be avoided. Never include policies and procedures to which your company doesn’t adhere. An employee handbook creates a contract between employers and employers. It should be regularly updated, to reflect changes in the law. When in doubt, seek guidance from a qualified employment lawyer.
Employee handbook resources are readily available online. However, it is always a good idea to consult an attorney for update-to-date laws. Standard policies available online may not be applicable to your business. In addition, there are many small but important policies that are omitted from “one size fits all” handbooks. Here are a few important policies that often get overlooked:
- Policy Against Unlawful Harassment
- Equal Opportunity Statements
- Commitment to Interactive Process under Disability Discrimination
- Right to Revise
- Medical Leaves of Absence
- Employee Classifications
- Employment-at-will Statements
- Disciplinary Policies
- Payroll and Salary Practice Policies
- Family and Medical Leave Policies
- Pregnancy Leave Policies
- Health and Safety Policies
- Workplace Security and Violence Prevention Policies
- Reference Requests
- Dispute Resolution Procedures
- Privacy Policies
- Benefit Description Disclaimer
- Internet, E-mail, Social Media and Electronic Communication Policy
- Exit Interview Policies
- Acknowledgement Form
Remember, employee handbooks are living documents that must evolve with the law. As fast as laws change in California, it can well be said that every handbook is need of revision. If your employee handbook is out of date, contact an employment law attorney immediately.
Daniel Thompson is an employment lawyer with Davis & Wojcik APLC, a Southern California based law firm with offices located in Temecula and Hemet. He is also the author of Land of Liability: A Guide for California Employers. He can be reached at (951) 652-9000.