As most employers know firsthand, the host of complicated rules and regulations related to the COVID-19 pandemic has created unique challenges in recent months. Although employers have generally been quick to adopt and enforce policies addressing COVID-19-related issues, the rapidly changing guidance has also necessitated swift revisions as best practices and requirements continue to change from day to day. As organizations continue to focus on reviewing and updating policies that respond to the challenges presented by the pandemic, it is also important that employers extend the same focus and treatment to employee handbooks and other non-COVID-19 policies.
Employee handbooks are an essential and invaluable resource for employers and employees alike. For new hires, an employee handbook serves as an introduction to the organization’s policies, practices, and culture. For current employees and managers, the employee handbook is a guide to ensuring consistent compliance with the organization’s rules and expectations for its employees. Most importantly, employee handbooks demonstrate that the organization complies with and adheres to all relevant laws and regulations.
In general, employers should review and revise their employee handbooks at least annually to account for changes in local, state, and federal laws. Trends in litigation, changes in technology, or shifts in individual industries can also necessitate policy changes. For example, in the “Me Too” and “Black Lives Matter” era, organizations should pay special attention to their anti-harassment, non-discrimination, and sexual harassment policies to ensure proper reporting, investigation, and anti-retaliation protocols are in place. These policies send a message to employees about expected behavior. In the event of a claim against the organization, they also help to demonstrate that the organization takes its obligations seriously. Social media policies are similarly becoming a focus of concern for many employers in this day and age, when a single unwise employee post can subject the organization to a litany of negative publicity.
It is important that handbooks reflect how the organization actually operates. Companies often overlook the importance of having a handbook that is drafted specifically for them. Handbooks are not “one size fits all,” and simply printing one off the internet will not sufficiently protect your organization. This is especially true if your organization operates in multiple states, as rules regulating policies such as paid time off, family and medical leave, weapons, wages and hours, employee benefits, and cannabis use can differ significantly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Additionally, unexpected changes in economic conditions or workplace operations often occur quickly and may require adjustments to prior policies that were drafted for different circumstances.
Management should adhere to its published policies in corporate decision-making and employee relations. Handbook policies should be clear and unambiguous so employees and supervisors can readily understand and comply with them. Guidance directing employees who have questions or issues to appropriate resources is also important. Once comprehensive policies are in place, it is equally important to properly train employees, particularly managers and supervisors, about their roles and responsibilities under them. Finally, ensuring that each employee acknowledges written receipt of the employee handbook and the obligation to adhere to the policies contained within it is crucial.
As businesses reopen and employees return to performing duties in the workplace in a post-COVID-19 world, employers should take advantage of this opportunity to review and update their employee handbooks and other workplace policies and distribute them to returning employees. Informal or outdated handbook policies create significant risk for employers, and organizations without clear, written policies are opening themselves up to potential liability on a variety of employee claims. Employers would be well-advised to consult counsel about reviewing and updating their handbooks.