April 12, 2019

The Importance of a Quality Employee Handbook

by Michelle Lanham, Esq., The Lanham Law Firm, LLC & Jason Dawicke, Esq., Dawicke Law, LLC

As plaintiffs’ employment counsel, I have reviewed myriad employee handbooks. Most employers whom I’ve encountered have a handbook. Some are quite good, some merely adequate and some leave much to be desired. Although employee handbooks are recommended, I submit that a poorly drafted handbook is worse than no handbook at all.

When considering creating a handbook, understand that there is no universal template. One size most definitely does not fit all. Some large employers have handbooks extending hundreds of pages in three-ring binders. Small and medium-sized employers certainly don’t require such detailed policies. Thus, my best advice to any employer looking to implement a handbook is to tailor it to your organization’s specific needs. For instance, does a small, white-collar organization really require the same multi-page, detailed drug testing policy that a manufacturing plant may include?

Although organizations have a lot of flexibility in deciding what material to include or exclude from employee handbooks, there are certain topics that must be included, such as:

Sexual Harassment and Anti-Discrimination Policies: It is incumbent to include both (1) A well-drafted policy outlining the organization’s (presumably) zero tolerance respecting sexual harassment and other forms of unlawful discrimination, and (2) A clear mechanism for employees to report any perceived harassment (e.g. to HR or through an anonymous hotline).

Leave Policies: While some employee leave policies are discretionary, others, such as the Family Medical Leave Act (applicable to employers with 50 or more employees), are mandatory. Hence, it is a good idea to have a well-drafted leave policy outlining all permissible leave (sick, vacation, PTO) and any mandated leave (FMLA).

Disclaimer Language: While there is no law requiring this, it would be extremely foolish not to include a clear, prominent disclaimer that the policies in your handbook are merely guidelines and subject to change with or without notice. The disclaimer should also contain a statement that the handbook is not a contract and employment is at-will.

Once you have created and disseminated your handbook, make sure to adhere to its policies. It is amazing how often I encounter a detailed progressive disciplinary procedure that the employer failed to follow – either because it bypassed certain steps or because it afforded select employees additional chances. While disclaimers allowing organizations to bypass one or more steps in discipline enforcement may be sufficient in protecting the employer from wrongful discharge claims, failure to maintain uniform enforcement could create internal strife amongst employees. It also could lead to increased unemployment insurance premiums if the separated employee successfully demonstrates that the company ignored its own policies.

Finally, regularly review your handbook to ensure that it complies with all current employment laws. I recently reviewed an employee handbook that was so outdated that it described the designated smoking areas within its plant. The Ohio Statewide Smoking Ban went into effect in 2006, so well over a decade had passed since employment counsel reviewed the organization’s handbook. Avoid making this mistake. Be sure to have an employment attorney review your handbook at least annually.