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Beware false promises in handbooks; explain ‘what,’ not ‘why’

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in Employment Law,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training,Maternity Leave Laws

Just the facts, ma'am.

Your employee handbook should clearly state your organization's rules and benefits without including any excess or superfluous language. If you embellish the document with needless explanations, you may end up eating your words.

Especially troublesome: handbook statements that explain why employees are entitled to certain benefits. The following case illustrates the confusion that results when handbook language seems to expand a benefit's scope.

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Recent case: David Johnson and his wife both worked for the University of Iowa. When his wife became pregnant, Johnson read the employee manual, which said she was eligible for six weeks of paid maternity leave while he wasn't eligible at all.

However, that policy also included a "Purpose" section that stated: "Purpose: to permit parents who have caregiving responsibilities to have time off to spend with a child."

Johnson sued, alleging that the university discriminated against biological fathers. He argued that he served as a "caregiver" and the handbook's purpose statement meant that the policy should apply equally to men and women.

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The court tossed out his case, saying it was OK to offer different benefits to women who went through childbirth. But the court did note that it was "troubled" because the policy language did seem to run counter to the "purpose" language in the same policy. (Johnson v. University of Iowa, No. 05-1184, 8th)

Final tips: This employer could have avoided the lawsuit by making its preface material match the actual policy. If paid maternity leave is meant to allow an employee to recover, say so.

If the policy is to allow bonding time, don't exclude the biological father. Even better, you can avoid such conflicts by leaving such preface material out of your handbook.
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