Compass Newsletter - Articles

Resolve to Update Your Employee Handbook

By Michael C. Petersen
(Winter 2012)

Employers that have not updated their employee handbooks recently should resolve to do so in 2012. Effective employee handbooks provide an essential human resources tool. Many employers have employee handbooks that require revisions or are hopelessly out of date. Those employee handbooks may fail to accurately reflect current employment policies, address modern workplace trends, and account for changes in employment law.

Make Sure that Your Employee Handbook Accurately Reflects Your Employment Policies

Employee handbooks provide an excellent forum for employers to introduce themselves to new employees and to inform them of workplace expectations. When a handbook does not accurately reflect the employer’s policies, it fails as an effective communication tool. Worse yet, it can lead to liability for the employer. Some of the common areas in which an employee handbook may not track the employer’s actual policies include:

  1. Performance Reviews: Many employers enact policies stating that they will give employees regular performance reviews (annually or more frequently). Employers enact those policies with the best intentions. However, employers commonly fail to provide performance reviews consistent with their written policies. That failure can lead to decreased employee morale. Most employees want some degree of formal feedback. When an employer fails to abide by its written performance review policy, employees may believe that the quality of their work is not that important. Beyond that, the lack of written performance reviews can increase the risk of liability to discharged employees. For instance, the lack of any written record of performance problems can strengthen an employee’s claim that an employment termination resulted from unlawful discrimination. Employers should make sure that any written policy regarding performance reviews is consistent with actual practice. Of course, the best practice is for employers to provide employees with regular, realistic written performance reviews.

  2. Policies Against Harassment: It is critical that employers have effective policies against workplace harassment. Those policies should clearly state the type of prohibited conduct. They should also clearly describe the process for employees to make complaints of harassment. Clearly defined complaint procedures provide employers an affirmative defense against certain kinds of workplace harassment if employees fail to use the procedures. Over time, however, employers may change the structure of their workforce so that written complaint procedures no longer match organizational realities. When that happens, written complaint procedures become ineffective, which can lead to liability for employers.

  3. Paid Leave Policies: Many employers provide paid time off to employees for vacation or illness. There is no legal requirement that employers provide paid leave. Consequently, employers have discretion to determine how much paid leave, if any, to provide. Paid leave policies should clearly define: (1) which employees are entitled to paid leave; (2) how paid leave accrues; (3) whether leave can be carried over from year to year; (4) how employees should give notice of the intent to use paid leave; (5) whether accrued and unused paid leave is paid to employees on termination. Unfortunately, many employers alter their paid leave practices so that they no longer comport with their written policies. That confusion can lead to employees making wage claims, which carry stiff penalties and the ability to recover legal fees.

Make Sure That Your Employee Handbook Addresses Modern Workplace Trends

We are living in a brave new world when it comes to technology. On-line social networking and smart phones have become pervasive. Employees increasingly use that technology in the workplace, which can lead to production problems. Employers should enact written policies that describe the effective use of computer and cell phone technology.

  1. Computer and Internet Policies: It is critical for employers to have written policies describing acceptable use of computers and internet resources. The written policy should clearly inform employees that all computer resources are owned by the employer and may be inspected and monitored at any time. Employees should be told that they have no expectation of privacy in workplace computer resources. They should also be strongly discouraged from storing personal information or accessing personal websites. Employers who fail to provide such warnings may face liability if they access employees’ personal information on workplace computer systems.

  2. Cell Phones: Employers should have written policies describing the acceptable use of cell phones, regardless of whether those phones are personal or employer-provided. Most employers view personal cell phone use in the workplace the same as use of office phone systems. Employees are generally discouraged from engaging in personal business except on approved breaks. Employees should also be told to comply with existing laws regarding the use of cell phones when driving and to refrain from using cell phones to take video or photographs of the workplace without prior permission.

Make Sure that Your Employee Handbook Reflects Current Employment Laws

Employers who have 25 or more employees are subject to Oregon’s Family Leave and Family Military Leave Acts. Employers who have 50 or more employees are also subject to the Federal Family Medical Leave Act. Both statutes require employers to provide unpaid leave to employees for issues relating to medical conditions and military deployments. The requirements of those statutes are fairly complex and should be clearly communicated in a written policy. In fact, employers subject to the Federal Family Medical Leave act that have any written employment policies are required by law to also have a written Family Medical Leave policy. Frequently, employers who have increased the size of their workforces over the 25- and 50-employee thresholds overlook that they are now subject to those leave laws and neglect to enact written policies. Because Oregon’s Family Military Leave law is relatively new (enacted in 2009), employers with existing Family Leave policies may not have revised them to reflect the requirements of Family Military Leave.

Effective employee handbooks are essential human resources tools. Make sure that yours is up to date for 2012.