One reason employers have handbooks is to protect themselves from surprise allegations of harassment. With a handbook that outlines how employees are supposed to complain about harassment—whether it’s sexual, racial or any other kind—employers have a shot at showing they acted reasonably to prevent and stop it.
Without one, they are left with having to show that employees knew how to complain. That’s tough if there’s no documentation that you told them how.
Recent case: Deborah Haskins and several other women worked for a small grocery store. The company did not have an employee handbook, but claimed all the employees had been informed that the owners had an open-door policy and encouraged them to come see them if any problems came up.
One of the women did approach an owner to complain that a vendor had sexually harassed her. The store quit doing business with the vendor.
About that time, Haskins and other women alleged that they, too, had been sexually harassed. They said they received inappropriate gag gifts like obscene lollipops, had to endure grabbing and sexual innuendo, and generally worked in an atmosphere that was rife with sexual banter.
The EEOC took up their case. The store defended itself by claiming that, while it didn’t have an employee handbook, everyone knew how to use the owner’s open-door policy to get help. In fact, that system had worked in at least one woman’s case.
That wasn’t good enough for the court. It said the case should go to trial because the company failed to show it acted reasonably to prevent or stop sexual harassment.
Without a written policy and handbook, a jury will decide whether the women had an effective avenue to complain. (EEOC v. Paul’s Big M, et al., No. 5:08-CV-1019, ND NY, 2010)
Final note: An out-of-date handbook is just as bad.