Five Employee Handbook Mistakes — and How to Avoid Them

Having an employee handbook is essential to every business with employees. A formal, written set of policies and procedures tells your employees that fair, equal treatment is part of your company culture. And a handbook lessens your chance of ending up in court if one of your employees feels wronged.

The Internet is full of employee handbook templates and samples — even “fill-in-the-blank” versions that allow you to plug in the name of your company. But using someone else’s policies can have unexpected consequences. Employment law requirements vary with the location and size of the company — and change often. And the language of your handbook can unintentionally create a contract with your employees. Using “will” instead of “may” can turn a possibility into a promise.

With that in mind, here are five common employee handbook mistakes:

Failure to update
Employment law changes quickly, and your employee handbook needs to comply with current federal, state, and local law. If your employees follow policies that are out of date — or are no longer legal — your company can be exposed to litigation. Make a regular schedule for handbook updates and follow it. Assign a person or committee to keep up with changes in the laws affecting your workplace. Solicit your employment attorney’s help — keeping up with labor and employment law is our job! And be sure to get a signed and dated acknowledgement from every employee that he/she has received and promises to read the handbook.

Ambiguous or overly broad language
Employee handbooks tend to say too little or too much. You want your policies to be clear and specific, with no room for interpretation. Use language that is simple and direct. Again, your attorney is a valuable partner in helping you craft policies that are applicable to your business, enforceable, and compliant with current employment law.

Failure to enforce
Fair and equal treatment is the bedrock of employment law, and courts expect you to deal with your employees in good faith. If you apply a handbook provision to one employee but not another, you open your company to discrimination charges. Remember, too, that all policies in the handbook must be consistently applied — even if a policy is not required by law.

Conflicting policies
As you review your handbook, you may find policies that conflict with others. Changes in the Family Medical Leave Act standards for returning to work, for example, must dovetail with worker’s compensation standards and the Americans with Disabilities Act. If you have company documents apart from the handbook — your benefits plan, for example — be certain that any mention in the handbook points to those documents.

Violations of the NLRA
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently has ruled that certain language in the employee handbook, especially related to confidentiality or social media, could be a violation of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) Section 7. Even if your employees are not unionized, your policies must protect their right to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining. And the NLRB has made clear its intent to examine employee handbooks in non-union companies to ensure that policies do not restrict those rights.

An employee handbook is a valuable communication tool that can help build and preserve your company culture and even attract and retain employees. As always, we’re here to help you develop a handbook that reflects the way you do business.


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