What Should Always Be Included in Employee Handbooks

Almost all businesses have an employee handbook. It may be a printed handbook that’s distributed to employees. Or, like many companies, your handbook may be electronic and available to employees through an online human resource system. No matter how it is disseminated, a handbook generally serves two main purposes: to educate employees about company policies and general job expectations and to document the company’s compliance with the plethora of employment laws that impact it.

Because of this, it is a good business practice to review your employee handbook at last once a year. The reasons for doing so can range from laws that may have changed; the circumstances of your business may have changed; and/or what may have seemed practical a couple years ago may not be working now. Here is some practical advice regarding a few provisions that should always be included in your handbook.

The Beginning and the End:
The handbook should begin with a statement that the handbook itself is not a contract of employment. Rather, it is a summary of the company’s policies. The handbook should indicate clearly, at this initial juncture, that it is the employee’s responsibility to read the handbook and follow the policies and procedures outlined therein. The handbook should also indicate that the company reserves the right to modify the handbook at any time.

The handbook should end with an acknowledgment form for employees to sign and return indicating that they have received the handbook (or if the handbook is online, that they know how to access it), and they understand it is their responsibility to familiarize themselves with and follow its provisions. The acknowledgment form should also seek affirmation from employees that they understand they are employed at will. Keep the signed acknowledgment forms somewhere where they can be located later — preferably in the employee’s personnel file.

Five Policies That Should Be Included In Every Handbook:
1. At Will Language -“ Unless your organization has entered into a contract or collective bargaining agreement with its employees providing that they can only be discharged for cause, they are employed at will, and the handbook should contain language specifically stating so.

2. No Discrimination, Harassment or Retaliation -“ This policy should clearly set forth that discrimination (which includes harassment) based on race, color, national origin, gender, religion, age, sex, height, weight, genetic information, marital status, disability or any other legally protected status, will not be tolerated. The policy should also set forth a procedure for reporting harassment and identify more than one person (by title) to whom the conduct may be reported. The policy should also indicate that an appointed person will conduct a prompt investigation of any complaints and that retaliation for reporting discrimination or participating in an investigation of discrimination will not be tolerated.

3. Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) -“ In early 2009, the Department of Labor’s new FMLA regulations went into effect. The new regulations span 200 pages and provide key changes in the area of family military leave and threshold notices employees and the company must give each other by law. The FMLA policy in the handbook should be updated to reflect these new regulations. If it is not in the handbook, it should immediately be reviewed and modified. “Old” FMLA forms published by the Department of Labor are no longer valid and will cause a violation under the FMLA.

4. Reasonable Accommodation -“ Under Michigan law, an employee must give written notice to his/her employer within 182 days of the date the employee knows or should have known that an accommodation for a disability is needed. The company may use the employee’s failure to give written notice as a defense in a subsequent lawsuit alleging failure to accommodate, but only if it has first notified the employee in writing of this requirement. Therefore, the handbook should contain a provision advising the employee to give the company notice of any need for accommodation within 182 days.

5. Social Security Number Privacy Policy — Michigan’s Social Security Number Privacy Act makes it illegal to publicly display social security numbers. This Act applies to any employer who has any documents that contain an employee’s social security number. The Act provides for both fines and incarceration for violations. In order to avoid potential violations of the Act, do not identify employees by social security number. If it is required to use social security numbers (e.g., payroll records), make sure to have a system in place to protect the numbers from disclosure. The handbook MUST include a social security number privacy policy.

Well-written handbooks should succinctly and accurately spell out the company’s policies. Done properly, they inform and often reassure employees while simultaneously protecting the company. On the other hand, handbooks that are voluminous, outdated or confusing become fodder for employment claims.

Vicki Patterson is a shareholder in the Bloomfield Hills office of Ogletree Deakins. She can be reached at [email protected].