Your employee handbook can be a helpful reference providing needed information, or it can turn into a weapon that employees and their attorneys can use against you in court. The choice is yours.
For employers, crafting handbooks is a delicate balancing act: Their manuals must orient new employees, convey corporate culture, provide information, communicate corporate policies and comply with government regulations while, at the same time, not expose their organizations to liability.
Fortunately, court decisions as well as state and federal statutes provide basic protections to employers that operate in good faith. That’s why it’s crucial to train your supervisors in federal/state employment laws and refer them to the employee handbook and other company documents when questions arise. But this guidance is only as good as the handbook itself.
To ensure that your handbook fulfills your goals, be aware of these mistakes most commonly made by employers.
1. Form handbooks
Obviously, creating an employee handbook is a huge task, especially if you’re starting from scratch. That’s why you may be tempted to use a form handbook. But if you’re not careful, a form handbook may turn out to be “fool’s gold.”
Keep in mind that every employer must comply with a unique set of laws based on the type of industry, state and municipality in which it operates, as well as on the size of its work force. It would be hard to find a “one size fits all” template that would have the information narrowly tailored to your needs.
Further, your employee handbook is an opportunity to communicate with your employees, convey the corporate culture and show why they want to work for you. This would be hard to do if you were only to cut and paste from a form handbook.
Bottom line: Form handbooks can provide guidance, but if you do refer to them, apply your critical thinking skills. Don’t incorporate anything that doesn’t apply to your organization.
Learn how to Bullet-Proof Your Employee Handbook
2. Conflicting policies
In the process of updating your handbook, you may discover that some of your policies conflict with one another in key areas.
For instance, leave policies are particularly troublesome. Employers covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act must coordinate unpaid-leave standards between the FMLA and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. Similarly, FMLA standards for returning to work must mesh with the Americans with Disabilities Act and workers’ compensation standards. And a unionized employer must ensure that nothing in its handbook conflicts with its collective bargaining agreement.
So, when assembling your handbook, bring all your policies to the table and ask “what if” questions. Review recent lawsuits or disputes to see if you could have avoided certain problems by harmonizing policy changes. Then rewrite your policies before publishing them in the handbook.
3. Probation trap
Traditionally, employers have placed new employees on probation for 30, 60 or 90 days before making them “permanent” employees. To you, that term may simply mean “regular” employees, but your workers may be thinking “lifetime” employment. Be careful in what terms you use; otherwise, you risk creating a contract.
The solution: Simply state that new hires will begin accruing benefits after 90 days, thus omitting troublesome terms like “probation” and “permanent.” It’s far better to let employees know that they’re always at-will employees and will continually be evaluated.
Tip: Strip your handbook of language that threatens your at-will status. Here's how...
4. Too much information
Broad policies belong in employee handbooks; detailed procedures don’t. As we saw in Smith v. School District of Fremont, employers that relinquish rights voluntarily can create contracts with their employees. The more detail the handbook contains, the more likely the employer has created a contract.
In particular, it’s not a good idea to become overly specific in discussing progressive discipline. Commonly, employers will have certain disciplinary procedures for a first offense, second offense and so on. That’s fine for an employee coming in late, but what about for someone showing up with a gun? Are you going to let an armed and dangerous employee off with a warning?
Clearly, in some instances, employers must fire employees. Those who break the law aren’t entitled to a second chance, unless you give it to them through a poorly worded handbook.
With Bullet-Proof Your Employee Handbook, you'll be able to:
- Let employees know about company benefits – without inviting “breach of promise” lawsuits.
- Guide managers on how to apply policies without painting the organization into a corner.
- Protect against today’s newest trends in litigation by having policies on dishonesty, dating and one other key area.
- Eliminate actions that can turn even the most carefully written disclaimers into snap-shut legal traps.
- Get rid of language about everything from arbitration to leave policies that can put you at risk.