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The case for employee handbooks in 2017

To employees, company handbooks and policy manuals can be annoying and time-consuming. Such labels could be used to describe any mandatory part of everyday life, but they detract from the goal of handbooks which, at the very least, are supposed to protect employees.

At the same time, the days of hundreds of pages of legal provisions and workplace policies condensed into phone book-sized packets are a bit redundant in the digital age.

So how do you ensure your employee handbook will still be relevant and, more importantly, helpful to all employees?

Why your handbook still matters

According to Beth Zoller, Legal Editor for XpertHR, part of the reason why handbooks are essential in today's compliance climate is the status of protected classes of workers, like medical marijuana users and pregnant women.

Overall, protected employee classes have a number of federal guidelines, but the particulars are more opaque for some compared to others. Take, for example, LGBT workers, who are still in the process of earning protection from discrimination under Title VII.

As it stands, LGBT employees and their employers are still waiting for the results of one of this year’s most significant employee law trials at the federal level. But Zoller is convinced that workplace policies should anticipate a ruling in favor of such protections.

“The best advice, just from a standpoint of diversity, is to keep sexual orientation a protected class," Zoller said. "It’s really only going to look better for your public and professional image."

Other experts believe that a handbook doesn't have to mean that everyone in the workplace should be treated the same, however. That's the point contended by attorney Heather Bussing in an interview with The Business Journals.

"There's nothing in the law that says you have to treat people the same," Bussing said. "Nor should you want that! If someone does amazing work, then you should be able to reward them with a raise, bonus or promotion (or maybe all three)."

The key, according to Zoller, is to make sure your handbook is 'Exhibit A' for the various policies and regulations that employees are required to follow. "It shows that you not only had a policy, but shows that all employees are aware of it, and that there's no mistaking the policy."

Changes on the horizon for compliance

HR Dive has detailed several upcoming compliance rulings for U.S. employers, but the challenge with handbooks isn't just identifying federal standards — local municipal ordinances can be just as impactful.

Zoller points to new paid leave laws in multiple states, whether for bereavement, sickness, parenthood or other safe days, as an example of the updates that employers need to make. HR departments should also be paying attention to the Trump administration's plans regarding  NLRB policy, particularly joint employer classification.

Along the same lines, protected concerted activity is an important point of reminder regardless of whether the workplace is unionized or non-union.

"Under section seven, employees have a right to engage in protected or concerted activity to improve wages and working conditions," Zoller said. That could even include taking photographs.

In his list of the top five employee handbook mistakes, Taylor E. White of Gardere includes both self-regulation and failure to update for current laws as big missteps. "Even handbooks that have been drafted by an attorney can become outdated quickly when, for example, newly elected officials pass new laws or repeal old ones after an election," White writes.

What about marijuana policy? As legalization for recreational use and sale spreads to more states, the thing to keep in mind is that workplace use really shouldn't see much in the way of easing regulations.

Zoller compares workplace policies against marijuana use to those addressing alcohol. Though some states also have discrimination protections for marijuana users, it's best, she said, to "go forward with drug-free workplace and workplace conduct policies."

As an aside, SHRM also notes the importance of getting out in front of e-cigarette use, which may present challenges to any tobacco use restrictions already in place.

How should it be designed?

One thing a company handbook can't afford to be is generic. Several experts have provided testimonials saying as much.

Copy-and-pasting simply doesn't cut it for most employers, especially those who do business across state lines. Including state-specific information that doesn't apply to workers in other areas only serves to add unnecessary length.

"So a Texas employer who cuts-and-pastes a handbook from Wisconsin or California may unnecessarily restrict itself more than the law requires," says White. That could also complicate legal matters down the line.

Zoller has written previously on spicing up employee handbooks, an initiative that should include more than simply adding color and boldface fonts.

Generally, electronic files are good for simplification in addition to being environmentally responsible, Zoller says, as long as they're truly accessible to all employees. Handbooks should also be available in different languages and formats.

"You want to let your culture and your brand shine through, making employees realize there is a motivation behind the policy," Zoller said.

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Filed Under: HR Management Legal
Top image credit: Pixabay