Is your organization fully in compliance? You may not be if you don’t have an employee handbook if you have one but haven’t updated it for the year. MP’s HR services team shares why an employee manual is important for compliance and your bottom line. This article addresses the basic elements of a good employee handbook, as well as what compliance updates your team needs to consider for 2021.
Why You Need an Employee Handbook
An employee handbook isn’t just a document for posterity. Especially when it’s updated yearly, a staff handbook can have a real impact on the company’s bottom line, as well as protect it from painful lawsuits, fines, and damage to its reputation.
An employee manual can support a company in reaching its business goals by helping to create a great corporate culture, missions, and values. It can also communicate important information about benefits for employees. As most successful businesses know, having a good culture and great benefits is key to attracting, retaining, and nurturing great talent. An employee handbook can also support business goals by setting expectations for workers and being a tool for managers to use in enforcing those expectations.
As protection, an updated company handbook will cover bases for compliance with state and federal laws, ensure that workers are consistently and fairly treated, and can even help defend against employee claims. Employers should note that there are frequently state and federal requirements for a company handbook, including specific employee policies (such as sexual harassment and anti-discrimination). Not including these could results in fines and fees. Having policies laid out will also help managers implement them fairly, creating happier and more productive employees. Most importantly, it will help in preventing claims of discrimination, sexual harassment, etc. If a workplace does need to respond to an employee claim or lawsuit, a frequently updated employee handbook will be key in defending against it. This is particularly true if supervisors all manage to the policies and if employees sign acknowledgements as the handbook is updated.
Best Practices for Employee Handbooks
While some employers will borrow an employee handbook from another company and make small edits, this is a risky process. Every company will need to have its own employee handbook based on its location(s), its size, its industry, whether it has government contractors or remote workers, what languages its workers, speak, and of course, its own company culture. Some employers may benefit from having multiple employee handbooks because it has such a diverse array of workers or perhaps because it has offices in many locations.
No matter how many handbooks you create, make sure you keep detailed procedures in separate documents. Especially if these are subject to change, it will more likely be a disadvantage to have so much detail, rather than help. With super detailed procedures, there is less flexibility to operate as each situation requires. For instance, sometimes an employee does something that requires a long investigation and decision-making process for discipline. Sometimes an employee does something that warrants an immediate termination. Leaving less detail in the handbook allows a workplace to move forward in the best way for each unique situation.
Employers should also ensure the handbook is easy for everyone to read and that it’s distributed to everyone. A common strategy is to also require a signature of acknowledgement upon first receipt of the book and every time there is a major update. Another best practice is to store and share the employee handbook electronically. This makes it easy for employees to reference, share, and for HR to update.
Five Foundational Elements of an Employee Handbook
Below are the basic elements to include as you build an employee manual.
- At-will language: This is required by federal law and should not be skipped. Avoid using terms that imply job security or job guarantees, such as “successfully passing your probationary period” or “long, rewarding career with the company.”
- Other legal language: Include language that states that an employee handbook is not a contract of employment and that your organization retains the right to revise the employment relationship at any time. Note that your handbook is a policy guide that can be revised at any time and that you will communicate any changes as they occur.
- Your company story: Your employee handbook is a great place to share your company story. It will help set the tone for your company culture and your mission and goals. Include an employee relations policy and use gender neutral language to make it feel more inclusive.
- Compliance policies: Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) and harassment policies must be in every handbook. These should include policies for discrimination, a drug-free workplace, compensation (wage and hour information), and safety (especially those that are required for your industry).
- Workplace policies: Lay out expectations for attendance, standards of conduct and performance, and handling confidential and sensitive information. You should also share benefit information and the process for filing and responding to employee complaints.
Five Critical Inclusions for a COVID Addendum
As a separate document, employers should create and share a COVID addendum for their employee handbook. Use language like “until the pandemic emergency has been declared over” or “until further notice.” This will allow the organization to discontinue the use of the COVID addendum when it’s ready to do so.
- Leave policies: You may want to temporarily amend your leave policies during the pandemic. Many employers are choosing to allow workers to take all their sick, vacation, or personal time before they have accrued it. Though as of this writing it’s sunsetting on December 31st, 2020, employers may want to create policies for how FFCRA leaves should be requested and who workers should discuss their return plans with.
- Vaccination and travel policies: If employees are reporting to the workplace, workplaces may want to require employees to disclose where they will be traveling to and from. The policy might detail out how to report travel plans, as well as requirements for quarantining and if quarantining will be paid or unpaid. It’s important to consult state guidelines for these policies, as each state has their own travel bans and quarantine requirements that are changing frequently. Employers may also want to create a separate policy for business travel, perhaps even prohibiting business travel during the pandemic. If workers do travel for business, the employer may want to set expectations for following the CDC’s guidelines, using a car instead of public transportation, etc.
- Remote work policies: Particularly if an employer hasn’t allowed telework or such widespread telework, these policies will be very helpful. Lay out expectations so that everyone is on the same page as to how work will be delivered, how staff will communicate, availability, and scheduling or core hours. It may help to designate who will be eligible for remote work and flexible scheduling so there are no concerns about discrimination. Most importantly, the policy should lay out how non-exempt workers will report their hours and request overtime. Per the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers are responsible for paying for all time non-exempt employees work, so they will need a good procedure for capturing this data.
- Office logistics: Employers will benefit from having an agreed-upon procedure for giving people notice of workplace closures during the pandemic. These policies could provide some reassurance to workers that the company is concerned about safety by discussing sanitization procedures and return-to-work procedures should there by a potential or confirmed COVID exposure. These policies may also lay out how employees will report to the office on a daily basis. Some workplaces are utilizing hybrid scenarios, some only partially returning workers to the office, etc. Lastly, employers may want to create policies for dealing with school closures. Will employees be allowed to bring children to work? Where, if so?
- Disaster and preparedness contingency plans: These policies should review hygiene and safety protocol, face covering policies, and social distancing policies at the workplace. They could also discuss protocol for safety outside the workplace and quarantine procedures and requirements.
Vital Employee Handbook Policies to Update for 2021
Make sure these policies are reviewed and updated, as they may change year-over-year and from state to state. To get more help with this, consider working with MP’s HR consulting team. Some of these policies can get very complicated, especially if an organization operates out of multiple locations.
- Equal employment opportunity: This policy must be updated to include all protected classes. In 2020 new classes were added on a federal level and many states have some of their own expanded protected classes, such as marital status.
- Paid Family and medical leave policies: Many states are nowenacting their own policies to provide paid leave for workers who need time off to take care of their own illness, a sick family member, or situations arising from a military stationing. These policies also provide time off for the birth or adoption of a child. It will be important to check the states in which an organization operates to ensure they are in compliance. Employers might also want to designate a process for requesting this kind of leave, as well as who oversees paperwork for it.
- Leaves of absence: Each state has its own FMLA, personal, parental, and disability leaves. Employers should review their policies and ensure they’re in compliance per their size and location.
- Equal pay and wage discrimination laws: Each state has its own equal pay and wage discrimination laws that apply. Workplaces may need to include certain legal language per their state’s requirements. Even if not, it’s imperative to ensure that there are no policies that punish or discourage employees from discussing their compensation or the compensation of other workers. This will not apply to people in positions like HR or accounting, who handle compensation data. There are also salary history laws in place for some states (including Massachusetts) that prohibit asking questions about a job candidate’s salary history during the hiring process. It may help to add language about this to hiring policies.
- Workplace harassment: Currently, there are 6 states that require various workplace trainings. Some of these are for sexual harassment, discrimination, anti-bullying, etc. Some must be done annually, biannually, etc. It may be required to list the frequency of these training requirements. It may also be required to have a written sexual harassment policy. Employers should keep in mind that if they have workers who are remote and in other states, the laws there may apply.
- Substance use and drug testing: 36 states now allow recreational and/or medicinal use of marijuana. Employers should ensure that their policies don’t run afoul of the relevant laws on usage. Some states even have laws that prevent discrimination against people who use medicinal marijuana. There are also a few OSHA anti-retaliation measures surrounding marijuana use and drug testing. Again, employers should ensure their policies don’t conflict there, either.
- Paid time off policies: Many states have laws surrounding the way employers can offer vacation, and personal days. They may also govern how use-it-or-lose-it policies and paying out unused time are enacted by employers. Additionally, employers may want to reconsider their paid time off (PTO) policies in a COVID work environment. It will be important to encourage workers to stay home when their sick and perhaps to allow them to take time off before accrued. If workers have become remote (temporarily or permanently), employers may also want to rethink how this affects PTO policies. Lastly, employers should be aware as to how their PTO policies will interact with various leave laws, especially paid family and medical leave laws, and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
Paid sick leave laws: 15 states plus Washington, DC require employers to provide workers with accrued, paid earned time for things like doctor’s appointments, picking up sick children from school, dealing with issues related to sexual and domestic violence, dealing with public health emergencies and school closures, and more. Some cities and counties even have their own sick leave laws. Employers with locations in multiple states may have a few different laws that they’re liable for. Circumstances like this are a great example of how having multiple employee handbooks, one for workers in each region/state/city can be useful.
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