Employee Handbooks: A Workers’ Compensation Practitioner’s Perspective

Your company’s employee handbook lays the foundation for what the your company expects of its employees and what your employees can expect from the company.  A well written employee handbook is an invaluable resource to any organization.  Employers, however, need to be aware of problems that can be created by poorly drafted employee handbooks.  Employers also have to make sure that the employee handbook truly reflects the company’s employment policies-or risk having the handbook used against the company in future litigation.  This post will cover the reasons why an employee handbook is so important. In later posts this month,  I will cover the issues that should be covered in every employee handbook, and some new issues that employers need to consider as we move into the second decade of 2020.

A well written employee handbook has a number of purposes.  These include employee education; demonstrating compliance with applicable employment laws; promoting fairness in the work place; and as a way of demonstrating the employer’s compliance with applicable employment laws in the event of litigation.

EDUCATION

The employee handbook is your company’s first opportunity to make new hires familiar with the organization.  Many employee handbooks open with a statement from the company president or CEO welcoming the employee into the company.  This is a chance for the company to give a broad picture of its culture and a sense of the company’s mission.  The handbook should be looked at as a way to guide the employee through their responsibilities and their rights with the company.  While the handbook should always have a page the employee signs to acknowledge receipt, your goal should not be just to hand the handbook over to the employee, collect the signed acknowledgement, and have the employee put the handbook someplace in their attic.  The handbook is an important communication tool between an employer and employee.  Manuals and policies can prevent employee misunderstandings or mistaken expectations that sometimes lead to lawsuits.  If your employees are clear as to exactly what is expected of them, you will lessen the number of those misunderstandings and hopefully cut any litigation off at the pass.

PROMOTE COMPLIANCE WITH APPLICABLE LAWS AND REGULATIONS

Having a clear employee handbook that makes everyone in the organization aware of company rules (which are presumably in line with employers’ legal responsibilities) increases the likelihood that everyone in the organization will comply with those requirements.  The handbook should be looked at as an important tool for supervisors to consult.  While complicated questions obviously need to be referred to human resources, you need to have supervisors actually out “in the shop” aware of what they can and cannot do.  Making sure that supervisors are thoroughly familiar with what’s contained in the employee handbook might be the best thing the company can do to avoid running afoul of the alphabet soup that is employment law.

PROMOTE FAIRNESS

A well written employee handbook, properly followed, promotes fairness throughout the workplace.  Having an employee handbook that guides both employees and supervisors through the company’s expectations helps ensure that all employees will be treated equally.  Supervisors cannot choose to apply the employee handbook rules to some employees and not others.  I have had clients in the past fall into the trap of allowing “good employees” latitude with regard to the rules set forth in the employee handbook.  Although it might be difficult in the individual circumstance, giving “good employees” a pass is a good way to render your employee handbook useless as a defense in any litigation brought by other employees.  Disparate treatment of employees leads to the implication that an employee who was disciplined pursuant to the rules set forth in the employee handbook was treated differently because they were a member of a protected class.

LITIGATION

Your employee handbook is an opportunity to educate potential juries about the company’s expectation and culture.  The employee handbook is the opportunity for the employer to communicate to jurors who ultimately will be reviewing the employee handbook and assessing whether the company acted properly.  Jurors do pay close attention to company employee handbook, policies and practices.  Juries’ decisions are often based upon the way the jury feels about the employer.  If the employer can demonstrate that it gives its employees clear notice of what is required of them, treats its employees equally, encourages employees to communicate concerns, and provides counseling and progressive discipline as needed, they will be looked at much more favorably by a jury.

As an aside, a regular blog reader reached out to me and asked whether Employers’ Workers’ Compensation Law Blog was shutting its’ doors, because I haven’t posted in a while.  No, I intend on continuing into 2020.  However, I’ve been putting some materials together for a seminar I’m speaking at on February 12, 2020, Human Resource Law: What You Need To Know, and I also followed some sage advice: “A wise man does not bring his office along with him on his honeymoon”!

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