Despite the critical role that the human resources function plays in companies of all sizes, HR personnel and departments are all too often overlooked when a company is evaluating its priorities and resource allocation. One frequently overlooked tool, which is available at a relatively low cost, is the employee handbook. Many companies lack developed workplace policies, and, even those companies that have such policies often allow them to languish unreviewed for many years, notwithstanding changes to the law and the company’s operations.
Creating and Updating the Company’s Employee Handbook
We view the failure to develop and properly maintain an employee handbook as a tremendous missed opportunity for many businesses because a properly drafted employee handbook can play a vital role, among other things, in:
- Establishing and strengthening the corporate culture,
- Providing guidance to employees in dealing with both routine and extraordinary matters, and
- Helping employers minimize workplace liability.
Reinforcing Corporate Culture
For many new employees, the employee handbook is the first substantive document they receive regarding their new employer and its operations. As such, the handbook should contain an introduction that welcomes the new employee into the fold and highlights the priorities and vision of the company. Maintaining excellent employees is the lifeblood of any healthy organization, and talented employees are more likely to stick around if they share the company’s vision and feel integrated into its operations.
Defining Company Policies
In addition, assuming a handbook is both readable and well organized, it is an invaluable resource for employees in navigating a company’s policies, procedures, and operations. Employees should be able to turn to the handbook to obtain answers regarding routine functions such as company holidays, payroll practices, employee benefits, and dress code. In addition, however, employee should be able to turn to the handbook for guidance on matters that (hopefully!) arise only very infrequently. For example, employees subjected to harassment in the workplace should be able to quickly locate and understand the reporting procedures developed by the company. Similarly, handbooks should provide guidelines regarding the company’s expectations of how its employees interact with one another and with the public.
Minimizing Workplace Liability
Finally, handbooks should be drafted and maintained with an eye toward avoiding litigation and minimizing the company’s liability when litigation is unavoidable. Employees are much less likely to seek the assistance of third parties (such as the EEOC, OSHA, or labor unions) when there is a legitimate mechanism for them to have their grievances addressed internally. The handbook should spell out this internal grievance process and must provide assurances against retaliation. Further, in the unfortunate event of workplace litigation, properly drafted and maintained handbooks can provide employers with legal defenses, for example, in certain types of claims alleging a hostile work environment. Similarly, properly drafted compensation procedures can help employers avail themselves of safe harbors in connection with improper salary deductions. Although all employers should seek to avoid workplace litigation, they should also ensure that, if they are forced to litigate, they have positioned themselves to win.
Maximize the Employee Handbook’s Value
In order to truly achieve these goals, employers should resist the urge to simply download boilerplate handbook provisions and staple them together. Instead, companies should work with legal counsel to understand the precise nature of the employer’s legal obligations, its corporate culture and policies, and the manner in which it enforces its workplace rules. Once drafted, the handbook should be reviewed with legal counsel on an annual basis so that the it can be revised to address changes in the law and/or changes in the business.
Attorneys at Kerstein, Coren & Lichtenstein LLP have extensive experience drafting and revising employee handbooks. In addition, we can provide periodic training to your employees regarding the requirements of both the handbook and workplace laws (just in case your employees are not reviewing the handbook every night before they go go sleep). We can also audit your HR functions to ensure legal compliance and can serve as a resource to your HR professionals when they are faced with the (sometimes bizarre) scenarios that arise in the modern workplace. Please contact us if we can be of service.
About the Author
Michael D. Tauer has more than a decade of experience drafting and revising employee handbooks, conducting compliance training for employees and managers, and investigating and responding to charges of discrimination and allegations of workplace misconduct.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 781-997-1600.