Employee handbooks get outdated, they’re missing detailed information, employees can’t find out the info they’re looking for in them, employers are continually in need of updating them … So just get rid of it, right?
Wrong. While there are schools of thought that argue that employers don’t need an employee handbook, most counsel is in agreement that a well-crafted handbook can not only help your employees, but also protect the organization itself from some lawsuits.
Note the term “well-crafted” in the above paragraph. It’s key. You can’t just put together a handbook in an afternoon, pulled from the internet, and think you’re protected. It’s imperative that your handbook serves multiple purposes, not just helping your employees understand your organization’s rules.
“A handbook is a collection of policies, an ever-living document that can be changed at any time by an employer with or without notice,” said Mary Kennedy, partner with Bulkley Richardson in Springfield. “The purpose of a handbook is to give information to employees about expectations at work.”
In fact, while your employees are definitely receiving and (hopefully) reading your handbook, your other reader is actually a judge and jury. Should you face employment litigation, your handbook will undoubtedly be one of the documents produced during the dispute. There are five key documents that arise most frequently in cases involving an alleged adverse employment action:
- Job description
- Employee handbook
- Performance evaluations
- Disciplinary documents
- Responses to administrative charges
These five documents are included in the “Pilot Project Regarding Initial Discovery Protocols For Employment Cases Alleging Adverse Action,” which some Federal courts require. So, since you are pretty sure that your handbook will be making a star cameo in any employment litigation, you should craft it with the intent to shine in this situation.
First off, don’t give away employees’ at-will status with a poorly written handbook! Yes, that’s possible. Employee handbooks can create implied contracts, and that means that your employees are no longer at-will. While not allowed in all states, those that do recognize implied contract claims have seen them arise from language around progressive discipline, assurances of job security, and probationary periods.
Next, grammar matters! Don’t know your semi-colon from your apostrophe? Brush up. A recent class-action lawsuit about overtime pay for truck drivers hinged entirely on the Oxford, or serial, comma – or the lack thereof. This wasn’t in a handbook, but rather state law, but it did end up costing Oakhurst Dairy an estimated $10 million. So, to be safe, check your grammar and make sure that your handbook says what it means, and means what it says.
Finally, good policy only goes so far. You know what you have to do to be an exemplary employer? Apply it consistently. That’s good on all sides – employees know what to expect, and a court can see that you’re treating everyone fairly.
Unsure about what to include, what to update, and what to avoid? Find out here…