So What About Handbooks?

Lorrie RayS. Lorrie Ray
Director, Membership Development

There are many views on the topic.  Some say you should not have a handbook because it only increases your liability, while others say it is legally required.  In fact, neither statement is completely true or false.

Here is what is true:

A poorly written handbook can increase an employer’s liability.

A promise in a handbook may be enforceable, and it’s important to know if you have such promises in yours.  Language in policies indicating that the employer will or will not do something can be seen as a promise, and it could be legally binding.  One way to avoid this is to preface a policy statement with something similar to, “Currently, the practice is . . .”  This works especially well if you have a statement at the beginning of the handbook indicating that the policies in the handbook are subject to change at any time, and if you date your handbook, and re-date it when updating it.

It is also true that certain statements or practices may create liability.  For example, employment-at-will is a common law standard in nearly every state.  It means that an employer or an employee may end employment at any time and for any legal reason.  One statement in a handbook that can undermine employment-at-will is “just cause.” Courts view it as requiring the employer to follow certain practices before discharging employees.  Another is to outline a progressive discipline approach – generally a useful management tool – without indicating that the employer can move through progressive discipline to discharge when the occasion warrants it.

Make sure you aren’t unknowingly creating liability by what is included or omitted from your handbook.  Members of MSEC have access to staff, sample handbooks, and employee handbook planning guides to assist with this.

Certain policies issued to employees help reduce liability, and an effective way to do this is through an employee handbook.

Every employer ought to have a well-worded and properly implemented EEO and anti-harassment policy.  If you do, your protection from liability in this area is tremendous.  Of course, to be fully protected, employers must also train employees and investigate claims of improper conduct.  The policy must contain certain items.  MSEC members wanting to know what those items are can view our sample policies with explanations at our website or call for assistance.

Another example of an important policy, if you are covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), is an FMLA policy.  The law’s requirements are exacting with regard to notice, and this is not a policy you want to invent on your own.  Again, MSEC has a properly worded sample.

A concisely worded handbook is a great way to communicate basic expectations and policies to employees.

Handbooks that do not go into detail about things not really impacting employees, and yet explain what the organization’s rules and expectations are, can be greatly helpful to employees, supervisors, and anyone acting in an HR capacity. When everyone is on the same page, as they say, there is underlying agreement on what should take place when certain incidents arise, and this helps create both sanity and efficiency.

MSEC’s sample handbook is great for small to medium sized employers who need to include important basic policies for legal compliance and good order in the workplace, without creating a lot of red tape at work. If you need help, give us a call at 800.884.1328.