Recently a nonprofit in Texas was ordered to pay $75,000 to a former employee for having a “no pregnancy in the workplace” policy. Lawsuits are often times unavoidable and can be part of the natural process of hiring and firing employees, but all organizations can make certain their employee policies don’t create self-inflicted wounds – even if they are not as outlandish as the afore mentioned Texas nonprofit. Take a moment to review your employee handbook and make sure it follows these eight principles.
1. Make sure your handbook is not an employment contract.
Disclaimers alone won’t do. Inform employees that the policies and procedures contained in the handbook are not intended to create a contract.
2. Plainly state your rules, regulations, and procedures.
What is your attendance policy? How often do you conduct performance appraisals? Are there any restrictions on the use of e-mail? Clearly state your procedures and rules, and then make sure they are consistently followed. This helps ensure employees understand what is expected of them.
3. Describe policies intended to assist employees.
Enable your handbook to function as an internal public relations system. Describe your employee assistance program. Explain your family and medical leave policy as well as your maternity, disability, and child care leave policies. This shows your employees that you understand the laws and rules and intend to follow them.
4. Communicate your commitment to equal opportunity.
Your handbook should include your organization’s equal employment opportunity policy. Courts look for this if you are sued for discrimination. Also include an anti-harassment policy. Define harassing behavior and give examples. Clarify supervisory responsibility and clearly set forth your internal complaint procedure. Designate more than one person to receive complaints.
5. Set termination guidelines.
Include required notifications, severance pay policies, and any grievance or complaint procedures as well as alternative dispute resolution procedures. Also consider tying severance pay to the requirement that employees execute the release acknowledging they received the handbook. This helps ensure that employees sign and return that acknowledgement.
6. Develop technology policies.
The informality of e-mail makes defining an e-mail policy a necessity. Employees should clearly understand that there is no expectation of privacy in company equipment or in their electronic communications. Reserve the right to monitor e-mail, and make sure that employees realize that all communications are discoverable and can be evidence in any legal proceedings.
7. Include state and local requirements.
Although keeping up with federal laws may seem challenging enough, don’t forget that state laws also are important. Not only can state laws provide more generous benefits and protections than federal laws, but they can also affect many of your policies. For example, state laws may govern your jury duty leave and workplace smoking policies. It is important to incorporate these and other state and local legal requirements into your employee handbook.
8. Don’t forget your disclaimers.
It’s important to explain in the introduction of an employee handbook that it’s not intended to be a contract. Instead, the handbook should be a helpful reference where employees can find the information they need to know about the organization. Think about all necessary disclaimers carefully and emphasize that the book is not a comprehensive list of all rules and policies.
Pay special attention to how to communicate updated procedures. Don’t get stung by an employee who tries to hold you to wording in an old handbook you thought you had successfully replaced. State clearly that the handbook and other organization manuals are not contracts and they can be amended at any time. Get a signed acknowledgment of your employees’ understanding that they give up rights under the policies of an old manual in exchange for the benefits it a new book.
It’s always a good idea to run disclaimers – and probably the entire book – by an employment attorney to make sure it’s compliant with federal, state, and local laws. Then make sure documentation about employees is compliant with the handbook.
Include in the disclaimer language an explanation that the organization reserves the right to modify policies, rules, and benefits as necessary. This flexibility is needed for documented incidents that crop up every day in the workplace. For nonunion employees, state that employment is “at will,” and nothing in the handbook changes that. (Make sure “at will” is compliant with your state’s laws.)