Your company’s employee handbook is one of the most important tools in your business bandolier. An effective employee handbook is the last word on company policies, employee code of conduct, and even new-hire onboarding; it constantly lays out the most updated legal guidelines put forth by the federal and your state and local governments.
Considering its importance, staying on top of your employee handbook should always be a top priority. When was the last time you checked to ensure your handbook is up to date — does it reflect current laws and guidelines? Is it articulating all process and policy changes that you have implemented in the world of COVID-19?
If it’s been a while since your last review, take some time to go through your handbook and use this guide to ensure that you’ve got everything covered.
The Compliance Baseline
There are several items an employer must inform their employees of in one way or another. These essential concepts are the basics of compliance. Adding these items to your employee handbook is the first step to becoming fully compliant with federal, state, and local laws.
- You must affirm your compliance with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This means that your company is an equal opportunity employer. By being compliant with the EEOC, you affirm to not discriminate against a job applicant or employee, according to the EEOC website, “because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, transgender status, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.”
- You must outline your company’s breast-feeding policy. Lactation accommodation laws vary widely between states, so be certain to refer to your local laws when drafting your own company policy.
- You must inform employees about your Family and Medical Leave Act policy. The Family and Medical Leave Act affirms that employers must give at least 12 weeks of unpaid maternal or paternal leave; leave spurred by a debilitating health condition; and leave based on several other serious reasons. Employees who take maternal or paternal leave are in a job-protected state during their leave, meaning they cannot be replaced during or due to the leave. This, however, is the federal baseline; almost every state has their own rules regarding leave from work, so make sure those rules are also displayed clearly.
Is Your Employee Onboarding Compliant?
Beyond getting employees acquainted with their new jobs, onboarding is an essential moment for informing employees of their rights at your company. Onboarding in your employee handbook is a great time to remind new hires of their tax and healthcare requirements. Here are a few things to consider including in your onboarding process and in your handbook:
- Begin every onboarding with the almighty I-9. All new employees at every company in the United States, D.C. and Puerto Rico must fill out and submit an I-9 tax form before they begin working.
- If you plan to run a credit check on your new hires, you must collect a written consent, or signature, before you do.
- Healthcare is confusing enough, so save your employees some headaches and be upfront and deadly serious when explaining your company’s healthcare options. Many employers require that new hires choose a plan within 90 days of their hire, so be certain to lay out your company’s policy in your handbook.
- During the onboarding process, you’re collecting a lot of personal information. In your employee handbook, assert your company’s seriousness about data protection and privacy. Several states have data protection laws which restrict how long and in what capacity employers may keep employee personal information on file, so be certain to inform employees of their rights to data security.
Is Your Harassment Policy Compliant?
Your employee handbook must have an unambiguous and detailed harassment policy. Harassment is any form of coercion, threat, or intimidation made against a person. Harassment can be verbal or nonverbal, direct, and indirect. Employees who are being harassed may naturally feel isolated and without recourse, so it is paramount that your employee handbook have a sound, effective harassment policy.
Your harassment policy should read like a tree of “if, then” statements with the goal of assuring employees that if they report harassment, it will be acted on seriously and quickly. Be certain to lay out key details of what happens when an employee files a harassment complaint.
Be certain to also explain that if harassment occurs on the basis of an EEOC protected quality, the harassment is also discrimination. The EEOC also requires employers to include a “no retaliation” statement which affirms that employees that report harassment are fully insulated from retaliation by their harasser or anyone from the company at large
Is Your At-Will Policy Compliant?
All 50 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico are under at-will employment guidelines. This means that an employer can fire an employee for any reason as long as the firing is not discriminatory, i.e.: firing anyone for a reason connected to an EEOC protected quality. At-will, however, goes both ways. The same policy means that employees also can quit their jobs or start strikes for any reason and at any time.
When drafting your at-will statement, check your state guidelines to see if you live in an area with either public policy exceptions or implied contract exceptions, as these two changes can affect how at-will works.
The public policy exception affirms that an employer cannot fire an employee if the firing breaks a state or municipal-level law. The most common example of the public policy exception at work is firing an employee in retaliation for their following of a state law. The only states that do not have a public policy exception for at-will employment are Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Nebraska, New York, and Rhode Island.
The implied contract exception prohibits an employer from firing an employee after oral, written or otherwise assurances of continued employment. If an employer makes a statement regarding an employee’s job security and then counters those claims, the employer has broken an implied contract between them and the employee. By the nature of implied contracts, it can be difficult to enforce these rules in court, but most states have implied contract exceptions. The only states that do not are Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, and Virginia.
COVID-19 & Americans with Disabilities Policy
As much as we all would have liked COVID-19 to stay in the “19,” the EEOC now has guidelines that employers ought to include in their handbooks. Many of the EEOC’s guidelines, however, refer to existing discrimination restrictions as well as federal rules from the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). The EEOC requires that employers who see employees display visible COVID-19 symptoms may exclude those employees from the workplace. Employers may also ask employees entering a physical workplace if they have COVID-19 or any symptoms. These actions would traditionally count as discrimination under the ADA or discrimination guidelines but both are currently allowed.
The Compliancy Balance and the Ever-Expanding Employee Handbook
Remember that your employee handbook is meant to be used as a reference resource. If your handbook is written like a law school textbook, it will be treated like one and be used sparingly as possible. An employee handbook should have a personality that reflects your brand and company culture. Employees should close their handbooks after reading and feel closer and more connected to their company — whether they’re reading it on their first day or after several years of working with your company. Maintaining a handbook that is fully compliant requires a business owner or human resources specialists to vigilantly watch admittedly dry government bodies and their actions like the EEOC and ADA. As much as the work can be draining, the result is universally worth it: a staff informed of their rights and fully prepared to integrate into your company.