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Viewpoint: Implement Global Policies, Not a Global Handbook

Jigsaw puzzle on the keyboard of a laptop.

​Most multinational companies should have global employment policies that are lawful and reflect company culture—not a global handbook that dictates exactly what must be done under any circumstances. Employers often would prefer a uniform approach, but uniformity has proven problematic when it comes to certain policies.

I often have received requests from employers for a "global employee handbook." But employee handbooks, at least the way we think of them in the United States, are really a U.S. concept. Some countries, such as Japan, have "work rules," which the labor authority must approve and that cover certain aspects of employment, such as hours of work, notice and severance. The work rules typically do not address everything that usually is in a U.S. handbook.

Thus, preparing a global handbook can be difficult considering that most U.S. employee handbooks cover every aspect of the employee relationship, including equal employment opportunity (EEO); sexual harassment and anti-harassment policies; maternity, paternity and other paid and unpaid leaves; hours of work; meal and rest breaks; protection of information technology (IT) systems and social media usage; other terms and conditions of employment; and benefits.

In many other countries, trying to memorialize all the terms, conditions and benefits of employment mandated by law can be difficult and even counterproductive, as the number of leave and other mandates abroad often far outnumber those stateside.

Focus on Key Policies

Rather than try to have an all-encompassing, global employee handbook, comb through the U.S. handbook and use abroad only those policies that truly can and need to be applied across borders, both from a legal and company-culture perspective.

Typically, a U.S.-based multinational company will want to apply worldwide its policies on EEO, anti-harassment and discrimination, anti-corruption and bribery, IT usage, business gifts, insider trading, a drug-free workplace and intellectual property. Do not apply abroad entirely U.S.-centric provisions, such as the at-will employment statement—ever-present in U.S. employee handbooks—since at-will employment is unique to the U.S.

Next, determine whether any of these policies need to be localized. This requires analyzing the local requirements in each country to see if any changes can be made to accommodate local law without compromising the purpose of the policy, both from a legal and cultural perspective.

Most U.S.-based multinational companies want to include all of the classes typically protected in U.S. employee handbooks, even though some of those categories are not protected in other countries. Age and sexual orientation are two categories of workers that are still unprotected in many parts of the world. But most global companies will include age and sexual orientation as protected categories wherever they are located because that is consistent with company culture.

Conversely, bullying often is not addressed in U.S. handbooks but should be prohibited in any global policy on anti-harassment and discrimination, because many countries have the broader protection against "moral harassment," "mobbing" and/or bullying.

U.S. companies often will include a personal-relationships policy in their handbooks, but notably these types of policies are problematic in some jurisdictions, such as France, as they are viewed as a violation of employees' privacy. A health and safety committee abroad typically will not approve such policies.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Introduction to the Global Human Resources Discipline]

Benefits Challenges

In the war for talent, multinationals sometimes create inventive benefits programs to attract and retain employees. For instance, companies have implemented policies paying the cost of employees' egg freezing and surrogacy. But rolling out these programs globally can be challenging.

For example, surrogacy is either illegal in some countries (e.g., Germany and India) or not regulated (e.g., Chile and Czech Republic), and egg freezing is not yet culturally acceptable in some jurisdictions.

Many companies are now offering unlimited vacation and sick leave and providing more-generous maternity leave to U.S. employees than is required. This has been a viable means of making companies more competitive in recruiting and retention, but rolling out these policies globally can be tricky. Companies must be careful not to end up having to pay employees for unused statutory vacation upon termination of employment, even when the company has provided unlimited paid time off.

In addition, outside the U.S., most developed countries provide statutory paid maternity, paternity and parental leave that in many jurisdictions far exceeds what employers provide in the U.S. Employers must be careful when drafting leave policies to avoid unintended consequences, such as providing an entitlement to even more time off than is required by law.

Privacy Rights

Social media and bring-your-own-device policies can be problematic due to strict privacy laws in the European Union and elsewhere. Most IT policies in the U. S. maintain that employees should have no expectation of privacy in the workplace. But in many jurisdictions outside the U.S., employees always maintain a sphere of privacy in the workplace. Multinationals need to be cognizant of privacy laws abroad that may prohibit an employer from searching an employee's e-mail, computer or workspace.

The bottom line is that multinational companies must consider local requirements and protections when implementing employment policies on a global basis.

Erika C. Collins is an attorney with Epstein Becker Green in New York City.


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