How employee handbooks establish a code of conduct and protect your firm Featured

7:42pm EDT January 31, 2013
How employee handbooks establish a code of conduct and protect your firm

As discrimination and harassment claims continue to rise, an up-to-date employee handbook has become a practical and affordable first line of defense for beleaguered employers. Between legal costs, court costs and settlement fees, an employer’s tab for a single claim now averages $100,000 to $250,000.

“A well-written handbook not only communicates the company’s policies and procedures, it nips problems in the bud by establishing the framework for a professional work environment,” says Elise Vasquez, labor and employment partner at Ropers Majeski Kohn & Bentley PC.

Smart Business spoke with Vasquez about the all-important role of an employee handbook in preventing lawsuits and claims.

What are the traditional components of an employee handbook?

Every handbook should start with a statement from the company, which establishes the expectations for a professional work environment where people are treated with dignity and respect, and violations won’t be tolerated. Other bare bones policies include:

• Equal employment opportunity and anti-discrimination — Make sure your policy covers all protected classes including disabled workers and applies to promotions and compensation as well as hiring practices.

• Employment verification and eligibility (I-9) — Require new hires to provide proof of their eligibility to work in the U.S. within 72 hours.

• Anti-harassment — Prohibit all forms of workplace harassment and retaliation, not just sexual harassment.

• At-will employment — Make it clear employment is not for a guaranteed time period and can be terminated at any time by the employee and employer.

• Family and Medical Leave Act — A must-have policy for companies with 50 or more employees.

• Maternity/paternity leave — Your policy should cover all California laws that pertain to disability pregnancy and paternity leave.

• Written acknowledgement and right to revise — Reserve your right to revise the handbook and include a receipt, which states that the employee has received, read and understood the material.

Should employers include other policies based on recent changes in the law?

Employers bear the burden of proof in wage and hour disputes. Employers, therefore, need to include a break and meal period policy for all their non-exempt workers consistent with the most recent California Supreme Court decision in Brinker Restaurant Group v. Superior Court of San Diego.

Another good practice is to include policies governing employee sick time, vacation, jury duty, and other forms of paid or unpaid leave.

Lastly, a policy setting forth the unacceptable or acceptable use of social media during work hours — especially on company-issued technology — is recommended and ensures compliance with California’s Social Media Privacy Act.

What are the best practices for enforcing the rules?

Employers must have systems in place to enforce the mandatory anti-harassment and discrimination policies and complaint procedures. Likewise, employers should not impose non-mandatory policies and procedures they do not intend to follow.

Inconsistent enforcement and subjective decisions will favor the litigious employee. Close loopholes, clarify gray areas and ensure reliable application by providing complementary policy training for employees and managers. Managers play a key role by modeling appropriate behavior and consistently enforcing the policies and procedures.

How often should employers review and update their handbook? 

Employers should revise their handbooks annually at the end of the year. This ensures compliance with any new laws moving into the new year. Should you need to revise a policy sooner, notify employees via a companywide email and, where possible, include a copy of the policy with an acknowledgement in employees’ paychecks. While no policy is foolproof, an employee handbook is a cost-effective way to reduce risk when combined with open communication, consistent enforcement and appropriate training.

Elise Vasquez is a partner in labor and employment at Ropers Majeski Kohn & Bentley PC. Reach her at (650) 780-1631 or evasquez@rmkb.com.

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