FAQs: Employee Handbooks

By Sonal Shah, JD, Senior Employment Law Counsel
Published April 12, 2016

About two weeks ago, I taught a class regarding updating an organization’s employee handbook. We had a great crowd and lots of questions. While I cannot cover everything we discussed in the training, I thought it would be helpful to go through some of the questions I received.

1. Do we need an employee handbook?
While there is no law requiring employers to have an employee handbook, it is highly recommended. A handbook lets you inform your employees about your workplace rules and expectations, so your employees know what is expected of them and what they can expect of you. In addition, an employee handbook can provide your organization with valuable legal protections. Having the appropriate policies in your handbook can help you defend against claims of harassment, discrimination, unemployment, etc.

2. What policies should we include in the employee handbook?
That answer will be different for every organization. It will depend on your size, your culture and the issues you have in your workplace. However, there are several policies that most employers have or we recommend they have. These include:  EEO, anti-harassment and discrimination, ADA/pregnancy/reasonable accommodation, attendance, rules of conduct, progressive discipline, drug and alcohol, dress code, cell phones, e-mail and electronic communications (including social media), searches on property, weapons/firearms, vacation, holiday, sick time, PTO, insurance, FMLA (if you have 50 or more employees in a 75-mile radius), general leave of absence, jury duty, bereavement, military leave, employee classification and entitlement to overtime, payment of wages and improper deductions, pay transparency (for federal contractors), hours of work (including breaks/lunch), no solicitation, whistleblower and termination of employment.

3. Is there a problem with using policy samples we find online?
Typically, yes.  Unless you are using a trusted source (i.e., the Management Association), you cannot be sure the policies are comprehensive and compliant with federal and state law, or that they have been updated to reflect the latest legal developments. They also will not be reflective of your organization’s policies, procedures and practices.  While sample policies might be a good place to start, you cannot just cut and paste policies and expect to have a good handbook. Even trusted sample policies will likely need to be tailored to address your organization’s specific needs.

4. What common mistakes do you see in employee handbooks?
Besides not being updated often enough and not having been reviewed by a lawyer, a repeated problem is a lack of consistency. Often, employers have policies that overlap, but are not consistent in what they state. Or they have policies that are not consistently enforced by all managers.  Or they have policies that are not reflective of how the organization actually works. Consistency is key, so make sure your policies reflect what you want and how you plan to act towards all employees.

5. How often should we update the handbook?
Technically, you should update your handbook every time there is a change in the law and/or updates to your policies and practices. Realistically, you should update your handbook every year and have an attorney conduct a legal review of your handbook approximately every 3 years. Please note, you do not need to wait until the New Year or your new fiscal year to roll out an updated handbook.

6. Can we provide employees an electronic copy of the handbook, rather than printing out a copy for everyone?
It is fine to email the handbook to employees or store the handbook on the company’s internal drives. However, you still want to ensure you have employees sign an acknowledgement page wherein they acknowledge they are responsible for reading and complying with the handbook.

7. Who can assist me with additional questions, sample policies or legal review of our handbook?

Our legal team, of course! If you have any questions, please contact us via email at info@hrsource.org or via phone at (800)448-4584.

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