An employee handbook is a vital resource for employees and employers alike. In its ideal form, it sets clear expectations, eliminating uncertainties while affirming company values. The manual acts as a reference for policies and procedures (especially in relation to the employee-employer relationship), including workplace guidelines, equal employment opportunity, code of conduct, employee classification, dress code, compensation and benefits, health and safety rules, promotions and raises, hiring and separation procedures, among other elements.
Besides being a communication tool, an employee handbook enables companies to apply their procedures and policies consistently to remain compliant. As such, it's important to review it regularly to ensure all policies and procedures are up-to-date with the current law and reflect the company's practices.
Seeking an expert to look into the handbook also ensures the organization gets recommendations on additional areas relevant to the industry that need to be cover. But most importantly, it reduces the risk of creating contractual obligations that may increase the company's risk of litigation from disgruntled employees.
If your employee handbook is due for an audit, follow this guide to learn how to go about it.
How Often You Should Review Your Employee Handbook
Ideally the employee handbook should be reviewed at least once a year. This ensures it remains up-to-date and complies with current federal, state, and local employment laws. Once changes are made to the handbook, it is important to immediately notify the employees. Besides ensuring staff understands and abides by the company policies and procedures, reviewing the manual protects the company from the risk of non-compliance, which can result in potential lawsuits.
In addition, the handbook should be manual professionally reviewed every two years. An audit by an employment attorney helps identify compliance issues that may expose the company to litigation.
Tips for Reviewing the Employee Handbook
There is no definite time of the year when the handbook must be reviewed. But generally, the exercise can be conducted as part of the end-of-year or start-of-year HR procedures, or alternatively whenever there are federal/state/local policy changes necessitating an immediate revision.
Below are some tips to consider before commencing the review.
- Seek board approval
- Constitute a team of reviewers (board members and staff) to spearhead the process
- Consult an HR expert or employment attorney to counsel on the relevant laws and compliance requirements
- Involve the whole staff in the process by requesting their input
- Collaborate with the finance committee to ensure proposed changes are financially viable
- Seek board approval at the end of the process
- Set a date for the next review
How to Review the Employee Handbook
With the basics laid out, let's now get into the details of what to review and how to go about it.
As much as the employee manual spells out the company policies and procedures to eliminate uncertainties and guide the employees on what is expected of them, it's important to ensure the document does not create unintended legal obligations for the business. Specifying the employee's and employer's rights in every given scenario avoids vagueness and implied terms that may be legally interpreted against the business.
For a better understanding of these and other best practices, here is a complete checklist to guide the review.
Understand the Associated Risks
Handbooks are not contracts, but they may convey implied contractual terms of employment. For instance, making statements that imply the employee is permanent, will be treated in a certain way, or will be disciplined/terminated only for specific reasons, creates an implied contractual term of engagement. The company could face a potential lawsuit if, say, it fails to renew an employee's contract after expiration or after terminating/suspending them for reasons not stated in the manual.
Engaging an employment attorney to review the manual ensures it does not convey statements that bestow unintended legal obligations on the business.
Verify Applicable Information
During the review, it's important to have updated information on the workforce size. The specific employer requirements, as specified in the employment laws, may vary depending on the number of employees.
Whether your organization is private or public may also affect the details to include in the handbook. For instance, if the company is publicly traded, it must comply with the whistleblower protections act.
Also, if it has unionized employees, the policies outlined in the manual should comply with the collective bargaining agreement, which governs their terms of employment.
Identify Relevant Laws
Identify the applicable federal, state, and local laws. Federal requirements may also vary depending on the size of the workforce, while state and local laws may affect the manual provisions based on where the employees are stationed. If the company has employees in multiple states and cities, ensure each location manual complies with the relevant state and local labor laws.
Some common federal laws that should be considered may include anti-discrimination provisions and leave protections. In the same way, different states might have unique minimum wage and overtime requirements, types of protected classes, and leave requirements. Some counties and cities also have varying laws, so the manuals must comply with the relevant local laws as well.
Ensure the manual includes disclaimers to specify rights so that legal obligations are not created that weren't intended. For instance, including an at-will clause ensures handbook provisions are not interpreted as contractual terms. Similarly, specify the company's right to modify the handbook, e.g., a clause stating the company reserves the right to change or revise the document at any time without notice.
The manual should have an acknowledgment form for employees to sign confirming they have received the document, read it, understood it, and agree with its provisions. All employers should keep a copy of the signed acknowledgment form; it's an essential document in the case of an employee lawsuit.
Review the Handbook Policies
Audit the policies included in the handbook, such as wage, leave, benefits, conduct, and other general requirements, to ensure they comply with the current federal, state, and local laws.
Wage and hour policies
Review the wage and hour policies to confirm compliance with the relevant state and local laws. These may include the minimum wage, payroll practices, timekeeping practices, overtime, paycheck deductions, etc. Also, review the employee classifications (full-time, temporary, part-time, probationary, etc.) to ensure compliance.
Verify the leave policies to ensure they comply with federal, state, and local laws, such as family and medical leave, pregnancy leave, voting leave, military service leave, jury duty leave, and crime victims' leave, among allowed leaves.
Review the benefits section to ensure it's not unnecessarily detailed. It should only include a brief program description with a direction to check the main benefit plan documents for details.
Verify the employee conduct policies for compliance with the relevant laws. The handbook should provide guidelines on activities, such as using employer-provided IT resources and communication systems (laptop, email, telephone); use of social media in the workplace; limitations on distributing employer materials; and the general standard of conduct.
However, the handbook should not detail disciplinary steps. Instead, it should have a clause with a disclaimer reserving the employer's right to bypass the disciplinary procedure.
Review inclusion of general policies such as equal employment opportunity, anti-harassment policy, protected classes (federal and state), etc. Including these policies in the handbook is not a legal requirement but demonstrates a commitment to adhere to the employment law.
On the same note, if a part of the staff speaks another language, consider translating the handbook into their native language.
Update evolving policies
Consider updating the policy to capture emerging trends like remote work and data security. Ensure the handbook is up-to-date with current data privacy laws and local regulations. It should also outline clearly any existing hybrid or remote work agreements.
Review the Handbook for Consistency
Finally, review the handbook's tone and clarity to ensure it's consistent with the company's culture. Is the information easy to read and understand? Are the terms used simple and understandable to the average reader? Ensure there are no ambiguous words or terminologies that contradict each other. Similarly, the procedures outlined in the manual should be consistent with the company's actual practices.
Updating the employee handbook regularly ensures that policies are current and in compliance with the relevant federal, state, and local laws. Likewise, it keeps employees updated with the company's best practices and rules of engagement. Generally, the employee handbook should be internally audited annually, and professionally reviewed by an HR expert or employment lawyer every two years.
Before reviewing the handbook, seek board or executive approval and have them involved throughout the process. Additionally, it's useful to seek the input of staff members, including collaborating with the finance committee to ensure any changes suggested are financially viable. Ideally, the process should involve verifying the applicable information, reviewing the relevant laws and handbook policies, and checking for consistency. And lastly, understand the associated risks and specify rights to protect the company from potential litigation.
If you need help updating your company's employee handbook, contact us today and let us connect you with a suitable expert.