Does Your Employee Handbook Need a Midyear Checkup?


New workplace laws on minimum wage, paid sick leave, criminal background investigations and more are popping up all the time—and they don't always take effect at the beginning of a new year. HR professionals need to communicate these changes with their workforce as the laws become effective, but how often should you revise your employee handbook? Employment attorneys told SHRM Online that the answer depends on a few factors.

The frequency of handbook reviews may depend on how big the employer is and how many states it operates in, said Lucas Asper, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Greenville, S.C.

HR professionals should also consider the purpose that the handbook serves for the organization—which varies from employer to employer, he noted. Some businesses just want to cover the minimum that is required by law. Others might use the handbook as a summary of all the applicable workplace laws that the HR and management teams rely on when providing guidance. If that's the case, they'll want to be extra careful about making sure the information is accurate and up-to-date, Asper said.

[SHRM members-only resource: Sample Employee Handbook]

"Updates should be considered at a minimum on an annual basis," said Stephanie Peet and Timothy McCarthy, attorneys with Jackson Lewis in Philadelphia, in an e-mail to SHRM Online. "However, sometimes there are drastic changes in applicable laws that necessitate an immediate change."

As an example, they said, if Congress were to amend Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to expressly include sexual orientation as a protected characteristic, employers would need to ensure that sexual orientation is covered in their equal employment opportunity policy and make revisions if needed.

That's why a midyear review is a good idea. "Employers should make an effort to stay abreast of changes in applicable labor and employment laws on an ongoing basis," Peet and McCarthy suggested.

If there are any significant changes to the laws that affect a particular employer's workforce, the handbook should be reviewed to ensure that the company's policies are in line with those changes.

Notice Is Key

When a new law takes effect, it is vital to give employees notice, Asper said. But that notice doesn't always have to be provided through a formal handbook update.

For midyear changes in the law, employers may want to consider stand-alone notifications or policy revisions, he added.

Asper said that in many situations, a state-specific addendum will make sense for multistate employers. The employer can send an addendum to the applicable workers in California or Wisconsin, for example, instead of rolling out an entirely new handbook. "That's the best way to capture state and local changes," he said.

Peet and McCarthy noted that handbook updates and stand-alone policies should be distributed with an acknowledgment that employees should sign and date. The acknowledgment should clearly identify the version of the handbook or policy that it relates to, they said.

"In addition, providing digital access to handbooks and policies, where feasible, is advantageous to both employees and employers," they added. "Employees are inevitably becoming more tech-savvy and will be more likely to review and utilize a digitally accessible handbook."

Electronic handbooks also make it easier for employers to update, edit and distribute critical information.

Changes to Watch

If an employer hasn't updated its handbook in more than a year, it's probably time to do a full-blown review with the assistance of counsel, Asper said.

That's because there have been a number of developments in workplace law recently. At the federal level, for example, there were many National Labor Relations Board decisions that affected employment policies.

Employers also should track the ongoing status of the now-halted federal overtime rule, which would have raised the salary threshold for exempt white-collar workers.

Employers can use a midyear handbook review as an opportunity to look at job descriptions and corresponding Fair Labor Standards Act designations, Peet and McCarthy said.

At the state and local level, employers need to look for new minimum wage, paid-family-leave and paid-sick-leave laws, to name a few.

Not a lot of federal action is anticipated in the next few years, so a lot of the big policy modifications will likely be based on state and local changes, Asper said.

Philadelphia and other jurisdictions throughout the country have been considering and enacting legislation banning employer inquiries into applicants' salary histories. These laws are significant because they will require many employers to change the way they engage in the recruiting process from the application stage forward, Peet and McCarthy said.

"State and local 'ban-the-box' laws that restrict the extent to which criminal backgrounds may be considered in the hiring process are also cropping up rapidly," they added.


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