Five Important Elements of an Employee Handbook

An employee handbook is a critical document. It not only advises employees of the company’s rules, policies, and expectations, but also protects the business against the risk of employee lawsuits and other, similar, complaints and claims.

Just as companies change, so do federal, state, and local laws, so all employee handbooks should be regularly reviewed and revised to ensure that they are in keeping with the current regulations. They should also be industry-specific, making generic handbooks or boilerplate documents downloaded off the Internet inadvisable.

Whatever industry the employee handbook covers, here are five important elements that should be included.

Policies Regarding Harassment and Discrimination:  In a section reserved specifically for that purpose, a company should state that sexual and other kinds of harassment will not be tolerated, and outline the procedure for an employee to file a complaint. The complaint investigation process should not be addressed, as it is beyond the scope of an employee handbook, but there needs to be a statement that addresses confidentiality or retaliation concerns.

Email, Social Media, and Technology Use Policies: All companies should make clear their do’s and don’ts regarding electronic communications. Social media policies that are too restrictive have been successfully challenged by the National Labor Relations Board, primarily those that prohibit employees from posting messages that disparage the employer. Such rules have been interpreted as interfering with employee rights to unionize. If the company supplies laptops and cell phones, employees should be advised that the files and messages could be reviewed and monitored.

Attendance and Overtime: Every handbook needs to state a company’s attendance and overtime policies. While excessive and unexcused absenteeism may result in termination, it should not be stated that excessive use of sick days can bring about the same result, as such a policy could violate both the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Americans with Disabilities Act. Regarding overtime, the handbook should address which employees are eligible for overtime pay, in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act, and outline the procedure for approving overtime hours. Although unapproved overtime must be paid if it is worked, an employee may still be disciplined for failing to receive the necessary approval beforehand.

Disciplinary Procedure: Companies should have a progressive disciplinary process in place and outline it clearly in the handbook. A progressive disciplinary policy can protect employers from discrimination claims made by employees who try to claim that disciplinary rules are unevenly applied. Employees should be made aware of the steps and the sequence in which they occur, and that the same rules apply to everyone.

Disclaimer: Employees need to understand that a company handbook is not intended to create a legally binding contract. It is a document that enables them to learn and understand their employer’s policies and procedures. To prevent any misunderstanding, all handbooks should include a disclaimer stating that the document is not a contract and may be changed or modified at any time.

Those who own smaller businesses often erroneously believe that employee handbooks are only for big corporations. The reality is that whether a company has one employee or one thousand, state and federal laws still apply and there is always the chance that an employee will initiate a lawsuit. A handbook is the best method of making workplace expectations clear and identifying company procedures for solving problems. For added insurance, a business attorney should review the handbook prior to its release, to ensure that it complies with all current laws. Please contact me today if you’d like to learn more!


Integrated General Counsel