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With only four employees, the firm was so small that it didn’t think it necessary to update its employee handbook after New York City enacted the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act in 2013. The statute requires reasonable employment accommodations for expectant workers.
Then, when one of its employees became pregnant, the employer determined that it could not operate short-handed during her absence. By relying on its handbook, which made no reference to the city law, management apparently concluded that it had the right to fire any employee at will, and the company terminated the pregnant woman.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that she filed a lawsuit—or that she won her case, says
Albert Rizzo, an employment attorney who practices in New York City.
This incident underscores the importance of regularly updating your company’s handbook, as well as your organization’s underlying policies and procedures. Not only are state, federal and local laws changing rapidly, so too is the technology shaping how people work today. It’s now essential for HR to make handbook revisions, with the input of legal counsel, at least once a year.
“The handbook is a living organism that needs to be changed constantly,” Rizzo says.
An employee handbook lays out how the employer wants employees to be treated and how workers are expected to behave. But it can do more: It can make a clear statement about an organization’s brand and culture, and it can serve as a tool to attract, engage and retain top talent. “It’s an introduction to who we are,” says Julia Grafton, an HR generalist at Boston-based architecture firm
Handbooks need not include every detail of an employer’s policies or every provision of the laws impacting the workplace. Rather, they should be worded carefully so that the HR department is not boxed in. For example, it’s best to leave out the nitty-gritty of the company’s severance policy and to avoid speculating on possible future changes to overtime pay rules in order to preserve flexibility. In addition, the handbook should include a disclaimer that it is not an employment contract; provisions affecting such disclaimers vary by state.
As we work through the early months of 2016, here are the top 10 areas where handbook updates may be needed:
1. Collective Bargaining
2. Social Media and Data Privacy
3. Reasonable Accommodations
5. Wages and Payroll
6. State-Specific Laws
7. Leave Benefits
9. Smoking and Marijuana Use
10. LGBT Rights
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