Don’t make handbook promises you’re not prepared to keep

Handbooks are a necessary part of managing the workforce. But drafting handbook language can be tricky. You don’t want the whole handbook to become a binding contract, but you do want employees to understand they have to follow the rules.

But you may want some sections of the handbook to be binding—such as an agreement to arbitrate any employment disputes rather than take them to a state or federal court.

So what’s the best approach? Include language in your handbook that explains the rules, but leaves it up to the organization to make changes whenever necessary.

Page by page, turn your old handbook’s vulnerabilities into legal strengths. Protect your at-will status, write legally sound disclaimers, and avoid these 12 common handbook mistakes— Start Here…

Advice: Consider treating arbitration agreements as separate documents, so they do become contractually binding.

Recent case: Theresa Niebrugge sued her employer, King’s Medical Group, for allegedly unpaid overtime hours. The medical practice asked the federal court to dismiss the case because it claimed employees were bound by an arbitration agreement. The practice said arbitration was mandatory to resolve any employment disputes.

Niebrugge argued that there were several versions of the company handbook. The first said that arbitration was a voluntary option. That original handbook also said that it “may be amended at anytime.” Niebrugge said she understood that the company would inform her of any handbook changes. When the company electronically sent a new version of the handbook, it required employees to click through to show they had received the material. The instructions included the statement, “I understand that I will be told about any handbook changes.”

That was enough for the court to hang onto the case a bit longer. Niebrugge claims she was never told that the click-through handbook agreement included any changes from the earlier arbitration agreement. The employer will have to show she got that notice, since it was promised. (Niebrugge v. King’s Medical Group, No. 08-1018, CD IL, 2008)

Final note: Had the employer left out the promise to tell employees about any changes and simply informed them that it retained the right to make any changes it saw fit, the case probably would have been dismissed.

8 Reasons Your Organization Should Have an Employee Handbook

8 Reasons Your Organization Should Have an Employee Handbook

  • Introduces Employees to the Organization’s Culture, Mission, and Values
    Perhaps the most important aspect of your Employee Handbook is the introduction of new employees to your corporate culture and how they will fit in. This helps to foster a sense of pride and belonging, which studies show will help employees become more productive in a shorter period of time. The introduction section of an Employee Handbook will answer these questions: “What do we do that sets us apart?” “How did the company get here?” “What are we passionate about?” “How can I, as a new hire, become a part of this culture?” The introduction section sets the standard for the employment relationship in general, and provides a guidepost for the remaining policies communicated in the handbook.

    2) Communicates to Employees what is expected of them
    A well-written handbook provides employees with a clear understanding of their responsibilities. The handbook also serves as a compass for the organization’s policies and procedures. For example, it advises employees what the procedures are for requesting time off or a vacation. It advises employees whom they should contact when they have an unscheduled absence (and what the timing should be). It tells employees whom to go to if they have questions about any of the specific policies in the handbook.  The handbook also communicates an employee’s general responsibilities regarding safety, timekeeping, reporting, and so on. By providing this clear, accessible information, handbooks ensure companies continue moving in the right direction.

    3) Educates Employees About What They Can Expect From Management and Leadership
    An employee handbook clarifies company objectives and leadership styles, as well as management best practices, to foster healthy management-employee relationships. It also outlines logistics, such as timekeeping requirements, hours of work, pay periods, and so on. Further, a complete employee handbook advises employees of their various entitlements to federal and state leaves, such as FMLA or Jury Service Leave. These clearly communicated policies help to eliminate confusion and inconsistencies that result when handbooks are silent on these topics.

    4) Helps Ensure Key Company Policies are Clearly and Consistently Communicated
    No policy is effective if it is practiced inconsistently. A handbook will accurately communicate your organization’s policies regarding employment, conduct and behavior, compensation, and other policies and procedures your organization follows. Most importantly, managers can refer to the handbook when answering questions or making decisions regarding your policies, and ensure their answers and actions are consistent with your policies and best practices.

5) Showcases the Benefits the Organization Offers
Does your organization offer vacations, 401k, health insurance, paid parental leave, or other benefits to employees? Make sure they know about these policies and the eligibility requirements by communicating them in the handbook. A robust benefits package can help you retain your best and brightest employees, so be sure they know about your full suite of offerings by communicating these in the handbook.

6) Ensures Compliance with Federal and State Laws
No matter what state you do business in, or how many employees you have, you will be subject to state and federal employment laws. Your handbook not only communicates these various entitlements and obligations to employees, but is useful in demonstrating that your organization strives to be compliant with these regulations. For example, if your employee is called away to active-duty military service, you will want to be sure they understand their rights and obligations when communicating their need for leave to you. Your Military Leave Policy should clearly define these parameters to the employee. Similar policies should communicate rights and obligations regarding state disability leaves, federal FMLA leave, and other government mandates.

7) Helps Defend Against Employee Claims
Unfortunately, employers should consider it a matter when, and not if, they will face a lawsuit or similar challenge from a current or former employee. When this happens, one of the most useful documents you can provide your attorney or third party investigator will be a copy of your handbook. A thorough and compliant employee handbook will help to show that the organization exercised “reasonable care” towards its employees. The employee’s signed acknowledgement page will show that the employee had an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the organization’s policies, a chance  to ask related questions, knew whom they could turn to for help within the organization, and agreed to follow the terms and conditions of employment set forth by the organization.

8) Lets Employees Know Where to Turn for Help
Ultimately, you want employees to feel comfortable turning to a trusted member of management for help when they want to report workplace violations, get workplace-related assistance, and get answers to any other questions they may have. The alternative is for them to turn to an outside third party, like the EEOC or DOL, which could trigger a costly and time-consuming investigation. When a handbook not only outlines one or two management individuals for an employee to turn to in these situations, but also designates another individual to turn to in the event the employee disagrees with the first decision, they are more likely to keep their complaints in-house, and this is a good thing for employers

4 common mistakes lurking in your manual

Company policies lay the foundation on which employment expectations are formed. There’s no time like the present to audit your organization’s policy handbook. Start by checking that your organization’s policies don’t fall into these four policy writing traps.
Do-It-Yourself Employee Manual — Get the blueprint for your whole company manual…
Mistake #1
Disclaimers Too Few and Far Between

Some employers mistakenly believe that adding a single disclaimer to an employee policy handbook is all they need to do to give themselves the latitude to bypass, revise, or replace existing policy provisions. If, however, employees are left scratching their heads after reading the disclaimer or searching for it within the text of the handbook, chances are good that the disclaimer will carry little legal weight should any of your organization’s policies be legally challenged.

Here are 5 disclaimers and qualifiers you organization’s manual needs:
• Opening disclaimer, which, in no uncertain terms, states that the handbook is not a contract of employment and that the employment relationship is at-will.
• Benefits section qualifier, which explains that benefits or premium contributions may change at the company’s discretion and that if there is a conflict between language in the employee handbook and language in an official plan document (such as a group health insurance policy), the official plan document governs.
• At-will reminder. In any discipline policy or complaint resolution policy, restate the employer’s right to discipline or terminate an employee at-will, with or without cause.
• Misconduct qualifier. In any list of misconduct examples, state that the list is not all encompassing or not all inclusive.
• An acknowledgment, upon which an employee’s signature means that he/she acknowledges: receiving a copy of the handbook, reading it, understanding it, having had the opportunity to ask questions about it, having had it explained, that the handbook is not a contract of employment, and that the employment relationship is at-will.
Mistake #2
Provisions that are too open to interpretation
No matter how well-worded you think a policy appears, there’s a chance that some employees may be confused by it. Sometimes, that confusion is a result of the language used. Just because you’re familiar with certain terms, doesn’t mean rank-and-file employees are, too. Always read policies with an eye out for HR jargon or legalese.
Mistake #3
Requirements that are too stringent
Another mistake employers commonly make when drafting policies is including more stringent requirements than called for by federal and state law. In some instances, this is perfectly acceptable, as long as you don’t penalize employees for failing to meet these more stringent requirements.
Best bet: Keep policies in step with legal requirements. Before actually writing a policy, consider whether there are any applicable laws no matter what the topic is.
Mistake #4
Protections that are too one-sided
Don’t forget to equally address all potential parties in a policy.
Case in point: One company’s policy on union harassment stated: “This is a non-union organization. It always has been and it is certainly our desire that it will always be that way….You have a right to join and belong to a union and you have an equal right NOT to join and belong to a union. If any other employee should interfere or try to coerce you into signing an authorization card, please report it to your supervisor and we will see that the harassment is stopped immediately.”
While the policy might have been intended to protect union supporters and detractors alike, the 7th Circuit deemed it unlawful. Reason: The policy lacked an “equal protection guarantee” for union sympathizers