Everyone is familiar with the concept of spring cleaning; maybe you even organized a few closets or cleaned behind your refrigerator last season. Those chores are good for your home, but did your spring cleaning efforts benefit your organization? Probably not.
That’s why we’d like to introduce the concept of “summer cleaning.” Its purpose? To remind you to update your employee handbook each year.
Let’s face it: Your handbook is likely out of date, even if it has been updated in the past few years. Labor and employment laws have undergone, and continue to undergo, significant change. As a result, it is important for employers to periodically review and revise their employee handbooks to ensure their HR policies, practices, and procedures comply with applicable laws and other current obligations and requirements.
It is a chore to review current policies, ensure they meet modern standards, and then distribute them to the workforce. So, you might be thinking, “Wouldn’t it be better to put off this task until the end of the year so I can roll out a revised employee handbook in January 2020?” The answer is no; you should never put off until tomorrow (or in this case, January) what you can get done today. There is no time like the present!
Employee Handbook Updates: A Chore No More
So you have resolved to update your employee handbook — now what?
Think of the handbook as a best-practices guide that sets forth key expectations for employees, as well as any notices or policies required by law. Thus, as an initial matter, it is important to realize there is no one-size-fits-all approach to updating your handbook. Policies that may be imperative for some employers are unimportant to others.
Generally speaking, employee handbooks should include policies on the following key topics:
- Equal employment opportunity and nondiscrimination
- At-will employment
- Leaves of absence
- Reasonable accommodations for pregnancy or disability
- Drugs in the workplace/drug testing
- Weapons/violence in the workplace
- Wages and hours
This list may not be enough for your organization, however. Your organization may also need policies that speak to safety rules, use of electronic devices, confidentiality, use of social media, dress and appearance standards, and arbitration of employment disputes.
It is also important to ensure your employee handbook is specifically tailored to the jurisdiction where you do business (ideally with the assistance of your go-to employment lawyer). Over the past several years, state and local governments have enacted laws that impose requirements on employers over and above what federal law requires. Most notably, state and local laws have expressly codified protections for additional groups of individuals (e.g., members of the LGBTQ community and those with dreadlocks) and have imposed additional paid leave obligations on employers.
Employers with multistate operations should be especially careful when reviewing their policies, as something that is a nonissue in one state may land an employer in hot water in another. For example, California prohibits use-it-or-lose-it vacation policies, while Mississippi does not. Louisiana requires that all accrued vacation be paid out upon separation of employment, but numerous other states have not adopted such a requirement. If an employer fails to comply with each state’s nuances, it may unwittingly subject itself to significant penalties.
When updating the employee handbook, be sure it includes revised dates or an index of when policies were revised. Employers should also maintain copies of the revised or superseded policies for a period of time (at least five years). This is particularly critical for online employee handbooks, which you can print out or save in an archive folder. If an investigation or lawsuit arises, your attorney will want to see the policies that existed at the time relevant to the claim, which may not necessarily be in the current version of the handbook.
Tying Up Loose Ends: Other Necessary Chores
While an updated employee handbook is a great start, your summer-cleaning list must also include a few other chores.
First, simply updating the handbook is not enough. Employers must also distribute the revised versions to their workforces and have employees sign acknowledgements of receipt (or demonstrate electronic receipt).
Second, employers should ensure that signed acknowledgements are promptly placed in employees’ personnel files or stored electronically in an organized fashion. All too often, employers only learn the signature on a key document — such as the employee handbook acknowledgement — is missing after trouble arises. It is better to ensure you have a 100 percent signature rate now while things are calm.
What good are your policies if your managers do not know the best way to apply and enforce them? Thus, the third item on this list is for your organization to train its management team on the policies in the employee handbook and how they should be applied. Indeed, this training should occur regularly. If your organization has not conducted management training in the past couple of years, rolling out a revised employee handbook is a great reason to change that. While you are conducting training for your managers, it may also be a good idea to host an all-employee session to introduce policy revisions and remind employees of your workplace rules.
Finally, employers have to actually follow the policies in their employee handbooks in a consistent way. Many employment discrimination lawsuits stem from inequitable application and enforcement of policies.
Summer Cleaning: The Next Big Thing?
While summer cleaning may never be as popular as its spring cousin, it is nevertheless a great reason to establish new, ongoing tidying habits for your organization. If nothing else, setting aside time each year to review your employee handbook (even if you decide updates are unnecessary) is a best practice that will ensure adequate communication with your workforce, compliance with ever-changing employment laws, and regular management training. Most importantly, it will reduce your organization’s risk of a legal claim.