Ten handbook policies no employer should be without in today’s workforce

Every organization needs a handbook. Every handbook needs clear rules that are easily understood by everyone in that organization. Yet where to start and what’s vital can be confusing, even more experienced HR professionals. To get started, we’ve pulled together the top ten handbook policies a handbook ought to include along with why they’re needed.

These policies are general — the specifics are up to each organization. For example, the bystander reporting policy should be expanded to explain exactly to whom in the organization the bystander report goes. Still, this will give you good insight into what policies you need to include and the trouble you might get into without them.

#1 Non-discrimination statement

Our organization is committed to a policy of equal employment opportunity and does not discriminate in the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment on account of race, age, color, sex including sexual orientation, gender identity and pregnancy, national origin, disability, religion, military service, genetic makeup or otherwise as prohibited by federal, state or local law.

Reason? A non-discrimination statement tells applicants and employees that your organization takes its legal responsibilities seriously and is committed to having a diverse workforce that’s free from discrimination or harassment. Follow up with another handbook provision that explains how to report discrimination or harassment and a method to quickly investigate and stop both should the report be founded.

#2 National Labor Relations Act disclaimer

Nothing in these rules is intended to restrict rights under the National Labor Relations Act.

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Reason? In the last decade, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which administers the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), has been very proactive in reviewing employee handbooks for rules that it perceives as violating the right to engage in concerted activity to better working conditions. The NLRA applies to most private-sector employers and determines when an employer has engaged in unfair labor practices. It has reviewed numerous common handbook rules like English-only, social media, and dress policies and concluded that if taken too far, these rules dissuade workers from organizing and engaging in concerted activity in violation of the NLRA. By stating that your handbook rules aren’t intended to interfere with NLRA rights, you make clear that the rules are meant to manage the workplace and not to quash labor rights.

#3 At-will statement

No manager, supervisor, or employee has any authority to enter into an agreement for employment for any specified period of time or to make an agreement for employment other than at-will. Only the president of the company has the authority to make any such agreement and then only in writing.

Reason? This statement makes it clear to employees that they are employed at-will. That is, their employer can let them go at any time for any reason or no reason (as long as it’s not an illegal reason). It also makes clear that during the hiring or promotion process, no company representative can promise other than at-will employment with the exception of the president of the company (or owner or Board of Directors as the case may be). Plus, the NLRB won’t see this as a “no-union” clause that interferes with NLRA rights because it does acknowledge the possibility that the head of the organization can sign on to employment that goes beyond at-will employment as would happen at the end of a union collective bargaining agreement.

#4 Civility

We expect all our employees at every level to treat each other and our customers with dignity and respect. That means that we do not use words or take actions that could be construed as harassing, degrading or offensive. If you have any questions about what is appropriate and what is not, please consult with an HR representative.

Reason? A civility statement that focuses on dignity and respect sets minimum behavioral standards without barring discussions about working conditions that may be NLRA-protected concerted activity. In addition, the statement provides grounds for discipline when employees name-call or use highly offensive slurs.

#5 Dress and Grooming

All employees must dress for their position and must be clean, neat in appearance, and free of any distractions that may impair health or safety in the workplace. Employees with questions about what is acceptable may contact the HR office for guidance. Our company does not enforce the dress code in a way that reinforces stereotypes about how a particular gender should look and dress. Our company remains committed to supporting our employees’ religious, ethnic, cultural beliefs, and identity and will modify the dress code accordingly.

Reason? In recent years, employers have had to modify their dress and grooming codes to reflect new understandings about what is appropriate dress and grooming. For example, courts have been willing to entertain religious accommodation requests that allow for facial hair, headscarves, and other modifications based on religious beliefs and practices. Even the Supreme Court has ruled that maintaining a dress code based on traditional views of what’s appropriate clothing for males and females can violate Title VII’s sex discrimination provisions. And over 22 jurisdictions have passed laws that outlaw banning “natural hairstyles.” The best approach is to set expectations but allow employees to request dress and grooming rule modification.

#6 Nursing employees

Employees who choose to nurse their infants up to one year of age may take breaks to pump milk as needed. This organization has set aside space for this purpose. Contact HR for specifics and to arrange for appropriate pumping breaks.

Reason? As of December 2022, federal law provides the right to unlimited workplace breaks to express and store milk for an infant throughout the first year of life. Most employers must provide the breaks in a private setting that’s not a bathroom. Regulations are forthcoming and a newly released DOL rights poster includes the right to express milk.

#7 Accommodation statement

We are committed to providing reasonable accommodations for eligible applicants and employees and do not discriminate based on disability, religious beliefs and practices, genetic conditions or pregnancy. Applicants and employees may request reasonable accommodations in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, Title VII’s religious discrimination provisions, and federal and state accommodations laws. Those needing reasonable accommodations should contact the HR office to initiate the process.

Reason? There are two new developments in the area of reasonable accommodations in the workplace. The first is the passage of the Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act, which requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for restrictions that develop during pregnancy and problems that develop after the end of pregnancy. Second, the Supreme Court recently made it more difficult for employers to turn down a religion-based request for reasonable accommodations. Employers must now demonstrate that making the accommodation would involve substantial costs based on the employer’s size, business, and resources. This rule invites employees to begin the reasonable accommodations process.

#8 Pronoun choice

Our organization fully supports and values all employees. As part of that commitment, we will recognize, respect and use the name and pronoun that matches an employee’s identity and expect all employees to do the same.

Reason? It is becoming more common for employees to select the pronoun they prefer to use and this sets your organization’s expectation that pronoun preferences should be honored. For those who may voice religious objections, the accommodations statement invites their request for reasonable accommodations.

#9 Bystander reporting

Supervisors and managers are required to report observed or suspected harassment of every kind — including sexual, racial, religious, and other prohibited harassment, to the HR office promptly. All others are encouraged to do the same. The organization will not tolerate any form of harassment by anyone, including customers, clients, management, members of the board of directors, or co-workers. There will be no retaliation for reporting any form of harassment.

Reason? By having bystanders report suspected discrimination or harassment, you increase the chances of stopping both sooner and thus potentially avoiding litigation. Just make sure that you immediately launch an investigation and take action to stop harassment or discrimination.

#10 Social media policy:

Employees may not represent themselves as speaking for the organization when posting to social media unless they are, in fact, the company employee designated as speaking for the organization on social media. Employees speaking about the organization on social media must clearly state that they are speaking as an individual and that their views do not represent the views of the organization.

Reason? This clarifies that only employees who have been authorized to speak for the organization can do so and that all others must state that their views are their own.