Question:

My business currently does not have an employee handbook. A number of my employees have indicated they are surprised that we do not have a handbook because their prior employers did. One employee indicated that he believed I was required by law to issue a handbook. Is there such a law and what is the down side to not having an employee handbook.

Answer:

There is no law that requires that an employer issue an employee handbook. However, we generally recommend that our clients issue employee handbooks because they are an important tool for communicating with your employees. Even though you are not required to issue a handbook, there are certain written policies you are required to issue as a matter of law. These policies include anti-discrimination and harassment, equal employment opportunity and, if applicable, policies regarding family/medical leave and pregnancy.

At a minimum we suggest the following types of policies be included in the most basic of employee handbooks.

  • Equal Employment Opportunity Statement. This statement should identify your business as an equal employment opportunity employer who will not discriminate against qualified applicants or employees with respect to any terms or conditions of employment based on any characteristic protected by state or federal law or local ordinance. The statement should also provide that your business will reasonably accommodate employees and applicants with disabilities if the person is otherwise qualified to safely perform all of the essential functions of the position.
  • Unlawful Harassment and Discrimination Policy. This policy should explain that your business is committed to providing a work environment that is free of discrimination and harassment based on any characteristic protected by state or federal law or local ordinance. It should also clarify that the policy applies to all persons involved in the operation of your business and prohibits unlawful harassment and discrimination by employees, supervisors, co-workers, customers, suppliers, and others doing business with your company.

The harassment and discrimination policy must include specifics defining harassment, explaining how an employee reports a claim of discrimination or harassment, what actions the employer will take upon receiving a complaint, and assure the employee that he/she will not suffer retaliation for complaining about discrimination or harassment.

  • At Will Employment Statement. If any of your employees are “at-will,” your handbook should explain that the employee is free to terminate his/her employment with your company at any time, with or without reason, and that your company has the right to terminate the employee at any time, with or without reason.
  • Drug-Free Workplace Policy. This policy should explain that your company is committed to providing its employees a drug and alcohol free, safe, efficient, and productive work environment. Depending on the nature of your business, this policy may include provisions for inspection of boxes, packages, lunch boxes, containers, and other objects brought onto company property that might conceal alcohol and/or illegal drugs. It may also include drug testing provisions in limited circumstances.
  • Workplace Safety Policy. Most California employers are required to have an Illness and Injury Prevention Plan (IIPP). Your IIPP may be a separate policy, or it may be included in the Employee Handbook.
  • Technology Use. Because of the increased use of technology in the workplace, it is important to tell your employees what your policies and expectations are concerning their use of e-mail, voicemail, and the internet. Your policy may define permissible use of the technology and explain the degree of privacy the employees should expect in their use of the technology.
  • Benefits. Your handbook should explain any company benefits that are provided to your employees, and refer them to specific benefit plan documents, as applicable.
  • Leave Policies. California and federal leave requirements are complex, and vary depending on the size of your business. It is helpful to describe your leave policies, and inform your employees which leaves are paid, how to request leave, the types of leave available, the duration of leave, and the continuation of benefits on leave.

The best practice is to review your employee handbook every year to address changes in the law or changes in internal policy. Careful attention should be paid to whether the current policies are actually being followed. Poorly worded or legally inaccurate policies can be used as a sword against employers in employment related claims. However, an up to date and carefully crafted employee handbook is a very effective shield. This is especially true when it comes to defending wrongful termination, discrimination and harassment claims.
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