What Should be Included in an Employment Handbook?
There is no legal requirement that you have written employment policies, or an employee handbook. Usually, these documents do not have the force of a contract. The legal relationship between your company and your employees will be defined either by the at-will employment relationship or by an specific offer letters or contracts you gave to the employee.
Employee handbooks still serve several useful purposes, however. They are a resource for communicating rules and expectations with employees. They can reduce confusion about things like vacation accrual, attendance and dress code, and other expectations. And, done properly, they can provide some risk protection for the company.
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Employment Policies You Should Include in the Handbook
The following are policies that should be included in your employment handbook, because having them (and following them) can serve to protect the company from liability under certain employment laws:
- At-will employment. There should be reference early in the document to the fact that employment is “at will” and can be terminated at any time. This paragraph should also confirm that the employee handbook is not a contract and may be modified by the company at any time.
- Equal employment opportunity (EEO) / non-discrimination. This policy affirms the employer’s legal obligation to provide a workplace free from discrimination, harassment, and retaliation based on protected characteristics (e.g., race, gender, disability) or activity.
- Anti-harassment. This policy underscores the employer’s commitment to providing a respectful workplace free from unlawful harassment based on sex or other protected characteristics under federal, state, and local law.
- Anti-retaliation. Your policy should clearly state that the company will not retaliate against employees for protected activity, including complaints of discrimination or harassment.
- Disability and reasonable accommodation. This policy affirms the employer's legal obligation not to discriminate against qualified employees or applicants with a disability and to reasonably accommodate such disabilities unless doing so would cause the employer significant difficulty or expense. This provision should include information about what an employee must do to request a reasonable accommodation.
- Complaint procedure. Your handbook should spell out the procedure employees can use to raise any discrimination, harassment, or retaliation complaints.
- Workplace violence. This policy affirms your commitment to provide a safe workplace for your employees. It may also help you avoid potential liability and penalties for workplace violence.
- Timekeeping practices and requirements. This policy should state that employees are required to keep track of their time, and to seek approval for work in excess of 40 hours in a week. This is important to give you the ability to control whether you are incurring overtime pay responsibility for non exempt employees. It is important even for exempt employees, so you have an accurate record of their time if they ever claim they should have been paid overtime.
- Time off and leave of absence. These policies should include lactation breaks, Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), maternity leave, vacation, sick, personal, holidays, voting, jury duty, military leave, witness and crime or domestic violence victim leave, and bereavement leave.
- Hours of work and attendance. These policies inform employees of the employer’s expectations regarding the work day and attendance. The employer should also explain any procedures employees must follow to report absences.
- Communications systems, email, networks, social media, and internet. You should have policies making clear that information on company devices and networks is the property of the company, that employees do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in that information, and that it may be monitored. Even if you do not have an intent to regularly monitor communications, you want to make sure you have put employees on notice in case it ever becomes necessary to do so.
- Handbook acknowledgement. Even though the handbook is not a contract, you will want each employee to sign a form acknowledging that they received a copy of the handbook (in hard copy or digital form). This acknowledgement is often important in responding to a claim that an employee did not know your expectations.
Employment Handbooks: Other Optional Provisions
There are other provisions that are commonly included in employee handbooks, which are listed with some commentary below:
- Introduction/company mission statement. This section has no real legal significance, but gives you the opportunity to welcome new employees and to communicate any message you wish to send about the company's mission, vision, and/or culture.
- Employee classifications. Some handbooks define different classifications (i.e., full time or part time, exempt vs. non-exempt). Unless you have a clear cut-off for benefits that distinguishes between full time and part time employees, you way want to leave this out. Particularly when it comes to exempt vs. non-exempt status, you want to avoid saying anything in your handbook that is inconsistent with the overtime laws.
- Probationary or introductory period. Given that Massachusetts is an at-will employment state, there really is no legal reason for a probationary period (other than eligibility for certain benefits). Nonetheless, many employers include it as a way to make clear the expectation that employment will only continue if the employee performs during this period.
- Telecommuting. Particularly since the pandemic, you may want to be clear about your expectations for remote work, and specifically that if employees are offered the accommodation of working remotely, that can be changed if they are unable to perform their duties satisfactorily in that environment.
- Standards of conduct and code of conduct. There are pros and cons to listing standards and codes of conduct. The advantage is that it sets your expectations clearly. The disadvantage is that. no matter how much you state that the list is not all-inclusive, people will take it as inclusive. This means you may have an issue with behavior that is not on the list but is still unacceptable.
- Dress code / personal appearance. If you have a need for enforcing appearance rules (i.e., in a retail or customer-facing setting), by all means include a provision here. Just be careful that the rules are flexible enough not to raise discrimination concerns. For example, prohibiting beards or head coverings could implicate certain religious traditions, or prohibiting certain hairstyles could be seen as targeting people of color.
- Anti-nepotism/fraternization. An anti-nepotism policy typically restricts the employment of relatives to avoid potential or actual conflicts of interest that arise when relatives work for one another. Similarly, an anti-fraternization policy aims to avoid workplace difficulties (as well as sexual harassment claims) that could arise when an employee works with or reports to someone with whom they have a romantic relationship. The challenge with this policy is being sure it is capable of being evenly enforced. In a smaller company, for example, you may have your own family members who are involved in the business.
- Conflicts of interest / outside employment / off-duty conduct. This is used to prevent employees from engaging in activities that conflict or interfere with the performance of their individual duties or the employer’s operations.
- Non-disclosure/confidentiality.Though employees already have a duty not to take or disclose company confidential information, a policy on this topic can help make sure the message is clearly sent.
- Workplace bullying. Some handbooks include policies on workplace bullying. A note of caution, however: unless it is discriminatory harassment, workplace bullying is not actually against the law. You should be careful about setting an expectation that you have a legal obligation to prevent bullying.
- Benefits. This policy should only summarize the benefits you offer (health, dental, vision, life, employee assistance program (EAP), disability, life insurance, and retirement) generally. These benefits may change from time to time, and employees should directed to rely on specific plan documents for details rather than the employment handbook.
- Travel and expense reporting/reimbursement. This policy should describe the types of expenses that are reimbursable, the procedure for submitting expenses, and any documentation that the employer will require to substantiate the expenses.
- Use of employer equipment/vehicles. This policy notifies employees that all equipment and supplies issued to them belong to the employer and outlines the employee’s responsibilities with respect to these items.
- Performance evaluations. Do not include this policy if you do not have a regular and routine system for performance evaluations. Otherwise it will set an expectation among your employees that you may not be able to meet, and could create unnecessary questions if an employee challenges a termination decision.
How Our Employment Lawyers Can Help
We can help you review an employment handbook to determine whether it is covered all of the issues relevant to your business, or create a handbook for you if you do not have one. You can use the button below to schedule a call back from a member of our team, or give us a call at 781-784-2322.