Paid Sick Leave, Data Privacy Top Emerging Topics in Employee Handbooks

By Dana Wilkie Mar 16, 2015
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Paid sick leave for employees who previously didn’t have access to it—a relatively new legal issue for many workplaces—tops the list of emerging topics most commonly being added to employee handbooks, with data privacy second and social media use a close third, according to an XpertHR survey released March 12, 2015. 

“Employee handbooks continue to be a perennial challenge and opportunity for employers,” said Peggy Carter-Ward, head of content for XpertHR, in a press release. “The challenges of keeping up with a changing workforce, new laws and just getting employees to read the handbook are not new, yet addressing the evolving workplace issues of paid sick leave, data privacy and social media are complex.”

XpertHR, which provides online legal guidance for HR professionals, surveyed 521 respondents online—ranging from board executives to HR managers to staff assistants, from across several industries. 

The survey explored who does the bulk of handbook preparation and updating at organizations, how often handbooks are updated, and the top challenges in preparing handbooks. 

Paid Sick Leave

There’s been a rise in interest in paid sick leave, especially for part-time workers and employees in the retail and service industries who may not get such leave now, the report authors wrote. Employers are starting to address this more thoroughly in their handbooks. 

Many employers already have some type of paid-sick-leave plan, but it typically covers only full-time employees. Under a California law that takes effect July 1, 2015, part-time employees in the state must get paid sick leave. A Philadelphia law that takes effect May 1, 2015, addresses full-time workers at companies that don’t provide paid sick leave by requiring employers to offer this leave. It’s estimated that the law will provide this leave to approximately 200,000 Philadelphia workers. 

Nearly 80 percent of survey respondents said they are addressing this new legal trend in their handbooks. 

Other Handbook Issues

Additionally, 67 percent of respondents are speaking to data privacy in their handbooks, and 64 percent to social media usage on the job. 

“When properly drafted, handbooks can be an excellent tool for employers to ensure consistency in employee management as well as to make sure that all employees and supervisors are familiar with their rights and obligations,” the report authors wrote. “Improperly drafted, handbooks can create potential liability for employers, leaving them susceptible to legal claims.”

Other emerging issues being addressed in handbooks include medical marijuana, now legal in nearly half the states, though still against federal law. The report authors noted that this “is a challenging issue for workplaces,” with 6.4 percent of respondents explicitly addressing it. Bring-your-own-device, or BYOD, is being addressed by 14 percent of respondents, LGBT protection by 17.2 percent, and e-cigarettes by 20.6 percent.

Another challenge is keeping handbooks current with an evolving workplace and workforce. More than 40 percent said this is the most challenging aspect of managing their employee handbooks. Keeping abreast of the law is a close second at 35.6 percent. Less challenging is getting workers to comply with the handbook; just over 1 in 10 respondents noted this as a difficulty. 

Other issues that handbooks often address include: 

  • Wearable technology.
  • Workplace bullying. 
  • Pregnancy accommodation. 
  • Breaks for nursing mothers. 
  • Domestic violence leave. 

Assembling, Updating and Distributing 

Writing and maintaining handbooks tends to be the responsibility of the HR department, with more than 4 in 5 respondents reporting that in-house HR professionals are responsible for the handbook, followed by in-house legal counsel (3.7 percent), an outside law firm (1.4 percent), and outside consultants (2.5 percent).

Ninety-five percent of nonprofit organizations report having a handbook, followed by 92.6 percent of private-sector companies and 86.1 percent of organizations in the public sector. It is far more common for those in the public sector to have legal counsel review handbooks (76.3 percent) than it is for those in nonprofits (57.6 percent) or in the private sector (53.7 percent). 

Handbooks continue to be distributed most frequently in print form (64.5 percent), although over the intranet is a close second at 55.3 percent, and through e-mail ranks third at 28.2 percent.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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