Writing your Employee Handbook: 4 Legally Dangerous Mistakes to Avoid

Is your employee handbook doing more harm than good?
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Human Resources

Writing your employee handbook: 4 legally dangerous mistakes to avoid

Company policies lay the foundation on which employment expectations are formed. There's no time like the present to audit your organization's employee handbook. Start by checking that your organization's policies don't fall into these four policy writing traps.

If your employee handbook hasn't been updated in the past six months, it's out of date. Learn how to avoid disaster with Employee Handbooks: Required Changes for 2017 and the Most Common Mistakes.

Mistake #1

Disclaimers Too Few and Far Between

Some employers mistakenly believe that adding a single disclaimer to an employee policy handbook is all they need to do to give themselves the latitude to bypass, revise or replace existing policy provisions. If, however, employees are left scratching their heads after reading the disclaimer or searching for it within the text of the handbook, chances are good that the disclaimer will carry little legal weight should any of your organization's policies be legally challenged.

Here are five disclaimers and qualifiers your organization's employee handbook needs:

  • Opening disclaimer, which, in no uncertain terms, states that the handbook is not a contract of employment and that the employment relationship is at-will.
  • Benefits section qualifier, which explains that benefits or premium contributions may change at the company's discretion and that if there is a conflict between language in the employee handbook and language in an official plan document (such as a group health insurance policy), the official plan document governs.
  • At-will reminder. In any discipline policy or complaint resolution policy, restate the employer's right to discipline or terminate an employee at-will, with or without cause.
  • Misconduct qualifier. In any list of misconduct examples, state that the list is not all encompassing or not all inclusive.
  • An acknowledgment, upon which an employee's signature means that he/she acknowledges: receiving a copy of the handbook, reading it, understanding it, having had the opportunity to ask questions about it, having had it explained, that the handbook is not a contract of employment, and that the employment relationship is at-will.
Have you updated your leave and benefits policies in light of recent FMLA and health insurance developments? Have you provided clear rules on overtime and off-the-clock work? Do you realize that you can't prohibit discussions on pay and benefits? Answer no to any of these questions and you could be at risk for a pricey lawsuit. Join us on Thursday, January 26, to find out how the new trends and regulations affect you.

Mistake #2

Provisions that are too open to interpretation

No matter how well-worded you think a policy appears, there's a chance that some employees may be confused by it. Sometimes, that confusion is a result of the language used. Just because you're familiar with certain terms, doesn't mean rank-and-file employees are, too. Always read policies with an eye out for HR jargon or legalese.

Mistake #3

Requirements that are too stringent

Another mistake employers commonly make when drafting policies is including more stringent requirements than called for by federal and state law. In some instances, this is perfectly acceptable, as long as you don't penalize employees for failing to meet these more stringent requirements.

Best bet: Keep policies in step with legal requirements. Before actually writing a policy, consider whether there are any applicable laws no matter what the topic is.

Mistake #4

Protections that are too one-sided

Don't forget to equally address all potential parties in a policy.

Case in point: One company's policy on union harassment stated: "This is a non-union organization. It always has been and it is certainly our desire that it will always be that way. You have a right to join and belong to a union and you have an equal right NOT to join and belong to a union. If any other employee should interfere or try to coerce you into signing an authorization card, please report it to your supervisor and we will see that the harassment is stopped immediately."

While the policy might have been intended to protect union supporters and detractors alike, the 7th Circuit deemed it unlawful. Reason: The policy lacked an "equal protection guarantee" for union sympathizers.

Nationally recognized author, educator and attorney Anniken Davenport has updated her popular interactive webinar Employee Handbooks: Required Changes for 2017 and the Most Common Mistakes.

In this fast-paced 75-minute session, you'll discover:
  • Up-to-the-minute HR changes to add to your handbook
  • Anniken DavenportWhat NEVER to tell employees after their probation period ends
  • How to avoid "the accidental contract"
  • 12 handbook errors that will get you creamed in court—and how to avoid them
  • Things that should be in a handbook—and things that SHOULDN'T
  • And much, much more!
You'll learn practical, easy-to-understand tips for spotting mistakes in your employee handbook—and exactly how to fix them. Because this is an interactive event, Anniken will also answer all of your handbook-related questions.

So don't let your once-helpful employee handbook become your organization's worst enemy. Join us on January 26 for this dynamic and insightful presentation!
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