It’s important for any employer to put together a detailed employee handbook. Putting your workplace policies on paper not only heads off problems before they occur – but they are also invaluable defenses in case of an employee lawsuit down the road.
But the employment law landscape is constantly changing, as is your work force. Federal and state laws change every year. Technology changes. Ten years ago you didn’t need a social media policy, for example. Even five years ago, you could get away without it. But now it’s a must.
Your policy manuals, including your employee handbook, shouldn’t be gathering dust in a binder on a shelf. You should put key people in charge of maintaining it and keeping it up to date.
For example: Your employee handbook should have been updated to reflect the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which was signed into law in 2010. For example, the ACA requires employers to provide reasonable break time for nursing mothers. Your handbook should reflect the new requirement.
The Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act (USERRA), also received an important update in 2005. The law requires employers to extend health benefits to employees who have been ordered to active duty in the Armed Forces for up to 24 months. The old law only required 18 months. USERRA was updated again in 2006, with more stringent notice requirements, though these wouldn’t necessarily be an employee handbook issue.
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was likewise amended in 2008 to allow workers at certain companies to take unpaid leave to care for a convalescing wounded service member. If your handbook only contains language addressing the pre-2008 version of the FMLA, you need to update your manuals.
Technology and Gadgets
Your employee manual should clearly spell out your company’s policies on the use of company-issued devices such as computers, cell phones, smart phones and smart pads. For example, you may want to restrict downloading new apps or programs (to prevent viruses). You may choose to prohibit games, personal calls, etc. This is less of an issue than it used to be, with widespread flat rate usage and unlimited calling plans. But including this information gives you a leg to stand on if you need to discipline or terminate an employee with a lax or careless attitude toward the responsible use of company-owned gadgets.
You may also want to have a policy in your handbook that addresses the use of mobile technology, texting, and the use of camera phones while on duty.
Employees using social media have posed a series of challenges to employers and HR managers. Some employers have attempted to impose broad restrictions against workers using social media accounts. The National Labor Relations Board, however, has reigned in what restrictions employers are permitted to impose on the social media activities of off-duty employees. The Board has held that workers should be free to discuss company business and work conditions online or offline without fear of reprisal, for instance – and has struck down broad, vague, sweeping statements such as prohibitions on ‘disrespectful’ speech on social media pages.
Your handbook should, however, contain language that states that the employer may monitor employee social media activity.
You may want to restrict employee use of company intellectual property, such as logos and images, without obtaining company permission.
Sexual Discrimination Issues
States are issuing gender-related discrimination rules and regulations at an increasingly hectic pace. Not only do you need to keep your handbooks updated to reflect state rules on gay, lesbian or bisexual employees, but you must increasingly address transgender discrimination as well.
As a matter of policy, your handbook should also provide for multiple means of reporting sexual harassment, while providing for confidentiality and privacy. The handbook should state that the company will not tolerate harassment on the job.
Putting it together
It’s important to have an experienced attorney with a focus on employment law review your employee handbook periodically. Attorneys who focus on this practice area generally stay current not just on new laws and regulations coming out of Washington and your state capital, but also on recent developments in case law.
Also, make sure your employees sign to acknowledge receipt of your employee handbook. Alternatively, having an electronic version allows you to email it to your employee accounts, which facilitates periodic updating and provides an electronic paper trail that shows that your employee received the information.