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March 16, 2017

Sometimes in business, and especially when dealing with Human Resources, the difference between the almost right word and the right word can mean a lawsuit or employment case. Something as small as a miscommunication or misunderstanding can cause you a plethora of issues.

Don’t have an employee handbook? Then you should get one – now!

Have an employee handbook? Then make sure it clearly states your policies and procedures, and update it every year. Why? Let’s review:

Why do you need a handbook?

Let’s examine why you need a handbook in the first place, and why you need it as soon as you hire your first employee. The primary, and most vital, reason is basic - legal protection. An employee handbook often protects companies from employees’ legal claims. You can compare a company handbook to having a rulebook for a sports team. It defines your company’s boundaries, gives ground rules, and explains what is and is not considered satisfactory behavior. It can detail anything from your payroll schedule and vacation policies to the federal, state, and industry regulations with which you are mandated to comply.

Have a small company? Though some federal regulations – such as Title VII and the Americans withDisabilities Act – don’t go into effect until you have 15 employees or more, you can be sued for many other issues at any size.

Once again: You can be sued no matter the size of your company!

While a handbook can’t protect you from being sued, it can provide documentation that can help protect you if you are. For example, if your handbook explains how time and attendance is documented in your internal systems (and your employees have been given and signed off that they have been given the handbook), you may be able to use that Employee Handbook Acknowledgement as documentation to help protect your company in the event of an accusation.

Another reason to have a handbook is that it lays out expectations for your employees. The handbook allows all employees to gain access to the same information, and allows employers to set forth their expectations in an understandable and consistent manner.

Things to consider when updating your handbook:

Once you have your employee handbook in place and distributed to employees with a signed acknowledgement, it’s best practice to review that document annually since laws and regulations change frequently. If you find sections that are no longer relevant or unclear, rewrite the wording to clarify or change the policy. It is highly recommended that you have your attorney or qualified individual review any substantial changes that you make in your handbook – particularly if they are indirect relation to a specific law.

Here are some items to consider when updating your handbook – especially for the 2017 year!

Your Social Media Policy:

  • If you haven’t kept up with the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) news, take a few minutes and review some of the lawsuits and findings that have come through in the past couple years regarding social media – even if you do not have a union! Specifically, if you have a stricter policy regarding what your employees can and cannot post on social media, you should take note and possibly revise your policy.
  • On Aug. 18, 2016, a decision found that Chipotle's social media policy that prohibited employees from "posting incomplete, confidential or inaccurate information" violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).
  • The board said that "in order to lose the act's protection, more than a false or misleading statement by the employee is required; it must be shown that the employee had a malicious motive."
  • Basically, anything that limits your employees’ ability to communicate in or outside of the workplace may need to be revisited. Other items to consider with your social media policy are policies about recording in the workplace, media inquiries, reference checks, and polices that prohibit your employees from talking bad about their workplace on media sites.

Minimum Wage changes:

  • There were several big changes regarding minimum wage in 2017. Many states – 19 in total – raised minimum wage at the start of the new year and some cities may also have their own local minimum wage laws. Take some time to do your research on those or consult your attorney!

Weapon Policies:

  • Make sure that you review your weapons policies. There are many states that allow concealed-carry holders the right to keep guns locked in their cars, but some employers have “no weapons on premise” policies. Your current policy could be too broad and need to be adjusted.

Reporting Violations and Grievances:

Assure that your handbook does not discourage employees from reporting potential legal violations to either the company or other governmental agencies.

  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration began enforcing new onDec. 1, 2016. Under these rules, employers can't retaliate against employees for reporting a workplace injury.
  • The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) have also targeted any policy or agreement that may be interpreted to limit an employee's right to go to any agency to report violations of the law.

Employer Size:

  • Have you grown this year as a company? There are tiers of laws that take effect at as little as 15 employees.
  • Pay close attention to your headcount and determine if your current headcount has triggered additional compliance obligations.
  • Consider making a tickler or subscribe an RSS feed so that you can stay abreast of the new laws and can react timely.

While this is just a small list, hopefully it gives you an idea of where to focus as you either begin developing or reviewing your handbook for the year. It is extremely important for every company – at any size – to make a handbook a priority. In the long run, you will not regret the time and effort it takes to save your bottom line from an ugly lawsuit!

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