Not complying with current law can be expensive in today's legal climate. Thus, employers should review their employee handbooks and employment-related policies to make sure they are up to date. More importantly, though, employers should draft their handbooks so their employees actually read them and follow their policies.

First and foremost, consider your employee handbook as a management communication tool - not as merely a document for strict legal compliance. That means the handbook should positively reflect the values of upper management and create an employee-friendly environment.

In the world of handbook drafting, some handbooks are "integrity-based" and others are "compliance-based." Integrity-based handbooks are proactive, morally oriented, management directed, positive and encouraging. The policies in an integrity-based handbook reflect internal values, not external obligations.

Compliance-based handbooks are defensive, legalistic, lawyer-driven, punitive and based on externally imposed rules.

Where possible, you should adopt the integrity-based model for your handbooks and hold employees to higher standards than those minimally required by applicable laws.

Although many of the policies in a handbook will be common across industries, every employer should endeavor to tailor its handbook to its own unique situation. Tailoring the handbook should take into account the size of your company, its geographic location or scope of operations, its operating culture, employee expectations and other relevant factors.

A handbook is just a summary of benefits and an employer's most important policies. It is not intended to be a comprehensive manual on personnel procedures. Nor does it need to address every possible contingency that can be expected.

The military leave policy, for example, does not need to go into every detail about what you will do for service members while they are out on leave or when they return. The handbook can simply state that employees should provide advance notice of military leave and the company will comply with all applicable laws covering service members.

Similarly, subsections describing insurance or retirement benefits do not need to include deductible amounts or other coverage details that are likely to change from time to time. Instead, insurance-related sections should simply state that the employer provides such benefits, that benefit levels and costs are subject to change from time to time and that the employer pays the majority of the cost for such benefits.

Employees with specific questions should be referred to either the HR department or to the current summary plan description document.

By using such general language, the handbook will be more readable and more dynamic in that it will not have to be revised and republished every time specific benefits change.

 

Begin with a personalized message

The handbook should begin with a letter from the company's founder or president welcoming the employee to the organization. Following that personalized message, add a positive description of the history of the company. This section should inform the new employee about significant facts in the company's history or about its plans for the future. The idea here is to portray the company in the most positive light and to make new employees feel that they are proud of their new employer's standing in the industry or community.

When employees read a handbook, they naturally want to know what the employer is going to give them for working for the employer. To meet this expectation - and to make a positive first impression on the handbook reader - the first major section of the handbook should list all of the benefits and other things of value that the employer provides.

Obviously, this part of the handbook should list all of the insurance and retirement benefits, preferably with a one-paragraph description of each. Listing each such benefit in a separate paragraph allows the table of contents to include a heading for each benefit and makes the list of benefits have more impact on employees.

This first major section of the handbook should also include subsections on the employees' pay, paid holidays, vacations and other paid time-off, such as sick, medical, bereavement and civic duty leave. Leave that is not paid should also be listed here, including extended medical, family, military and personal leave. Other benefits, such as tuition reimbursement programs, relocation benefits or employee discounts should also be listed. Even government-required benefits should be included as subsections, including Social Security, workers' compensation, COBRA and modified duty or reasonable accommodation policies.

Your handbook should stress your concern for safety in the workplace in the most employee-oriented way possible. No employer wants its employees to be injured at work, and this message should come through loud and clear in the handbook. Employees that get this message will be positively influenced by the handbook.

Your safety programs, references to a safety committee and training, and to policies covering drugs and alcohol, workplace security, weapons, driving and criminal records, workplace chemicals and related matters will all reinforce your overarching concern for safety on the job.

Although employees do not necessarily like to read all of the ways they can be terminated, it's much worse not to inform them of your legitimate expectations before issues arise.

Use the handbook to outline major work rules, such as rules of conduct, and policies relating to harassment or discrimination, drugs and alcohol, electronic communications, workplace violence, conflicts of interest, confidential information, driving or criminal records, and other significant policies.

To make a handbook more readable by employees, use numerous headings and subheadings as guides. Headings break up long stretches of text and help employees to understand the handbook's content.

Circumstances and laws are constantly changing. Although the handbook may be drafted to adapt to changes over time, you will inevitably need to review and update your handbook regularly. When making updates, reflect on past situations and incorporate changes into the handbook to address such situations in the future. Before publishing and distributing a new handbook, have your employment lawyer review any changes, just to make sure that the handbook remains in compliance with all the applicable laws at the time.

This article first appeared in EBN's e-newsletter Legal Alert on March 4. Subscribe to Legal Alert at ebn.benefitnews.com. Contact Brannen at dabrannen@laborlawyers.com.

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