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Employee handbooks are make-or-break road maps for organizations, helping to get them where they want to go as fast as possible by setting them on a course away from time-consuming lawsuits.
On the other hand, a poorly written employee handbook can create confusion. It can hamper an employer’s ability to respond effectively and consistently to critical situations in the workplace. And it can create liability for an employer where none should exist.
For these reasons, the maintenance of an effective employee handbook demands your attention. A handbook typically has a long shelf life, and mistakes, misstatements and ambiguity can come back to haunt a company when legal problems arise.
With these caveats in mind, here are 10 mistakes you should avoid with your employee handbook:
Taking a Boilerplate Approach.
Employee handbooks should directly reflect how your company actually operates, its culture and its expectations. As such, avoid adopting a cookie-cutter handbook straight from a template. Of course, an employer may review a template or the handbooks of similar companies when drafting its own. But, in the end, your company is unique and your handbook should be specifically tailored to your organization’s policies and actual practices.
Not Including All Policies in the Handbook.
Employers often draft new policies as laws change and new situations arise in the workplace. If those new policies are important enough to put in writing, they need to be included in the employee handbook. Employees should not have to review the bulletin board in the break room, old e-mails and other miscellaneous policies distributed with new hire paperwork in addition to the employee handbook to learn the company’s policies.
All employee handbooks must include a disclaimer that nothing in the handbook creates a contract for employment or alters the employee’s at-will employment relationship. While you are at it, take out the 90-day probationary period language if your employees are at will. Handbooks also should include a disclaimer that the handbook cannot address every situation that could possibly arise in the workplace in order to give the employer flexibility in addressing unique situations.
Crafting Overly Restrictive Confidentiality Social Media Policies.
No company wants employees to bad-mouth their company on social media for the whole world to see. But a prohibition against any employee speech that could reflect negatively on the company may violate the employee’s rights under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. Employees also have the right to discuss wages and other work issues with fellow employees without reprisal. To reduce the likelihood that an employee’s personal use of social media will have an adverse effect on the company, suggest that employees add a disclaimer to their posts that the opinions the employee expresses on social media are the employee’s own and do not necessarily represent the company’s stance. Bottom line— you can’t control your brand by prohibiting employees from saying negative things about your company on social media.
Not Having an Effective Anti-Harassment Policy.
Perhaps no policy is more important than an effective anti-harassment policy. Employers should let employees know what harassment is and what they must do about it if it happens to them in the workplace. The employee handbook should describe the procedure employees need to follow to report an incident of harassment, including the specific person to whom an employee should report the harassment, and an alternate person if the person designated under the policy is the alleged harasser. The handbook also may include a form for employees to complete to report workplace harassment, although employers must promptly investigate any complaint, even if the employee does not submit it in writing.
Having an Overly Restrictive Disciplinary Policy.
Handbook policies should list the type of conduct that may result in employee discipline and potential penalties for infractions up to and including termination of employment. However, the handbook should not include a rigid “step” disciplinary system from which the company cannot deviate, which would leave the company ill-equipped to handle serious incidents if it is the employee’s first infraction. Disciplinary policies should always include the disclaimer that the company reserves the right to skip one or more steps as necessary, depending on the severity of the infraction.
Not Making It User-Friendly.
Keep your handbook concise, avoid legalese and use an active voice to eliminate potential ambiguity. You can’t include every possible situation that may arise, and you should avoid going into extensive detail on every management policy. For example, employees don’t need to know every step HR will take to investigate a harassment claim.
Failing to Train.
Don’t assume that management will always act in accordance with the policies in the handbook. Make sure managers and supervisors receive regular training on handbook policies so that they are implemented correctly and effectively. Once trained, management and supervisors should periodically review handbook policies to assess whether they are being applied consistently throughout the company.
Applying Policies Inconsistently.
Consider designating a management employee from outside HR to troubleshoot the handbook and look for any inconsistent or ambiguous language. Enforce the policies in your handbook the same way with everyone, every time. Inconsistent enforcement can have a negative effect on company morale—it can appear that some employees have to abide by the rules and some don’t. It can also devalue the importance of your employee handbook if it appears that the policies don’t really guide how employees are treated. Even worse, it can subject the company to a claim of discrimination if the company disciplines employees differently for the same infraction.
Keeping Legal Out of the Loop.
Don’t shut out your employment attorney. Laws and regulations can change, so have your employment legal counsel review the handbook on a periodic basis to keep it up-to-date. Be sure to alert employees to any updates and have them sign an acknowledgment that they received an updated copy of the handbook.
There’s a lot to consider when planning and implementing an employee handbook. When you do it the right way, it will be a valuable tool for everyone at your company for years to come, and set you in the right direction.
Jeffrey M. Beemer is an employment attorney with the Nashville office of Dickinson Wright.
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