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Start or Update Your Employee Handbook

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When is it the right time to update my company's Employee Handbook?

Of course, most businesses undergo changes over time, and your policies may require updating to account for those changes. Your Employee Handbook is an opportunity to address company policies, beliefs, attitudes, values, and to establish the company culture. You can develop one with an Employee Handbook template, and later on take the time to update it specifically for your business as it evolves. Your handbook can get out of date quickly if you do not audit it on a regular basis. For most businesses, reviewing policies annually can be a smart move. 

Consider the following factors to stay in the right mindset so you can catch when policies are most likely to go out of date.

The date it was last updated

The amount of time that has passed since policies were last reviewed is one of the most important factors to consider. A great way to ensure your handbook remains up to date is to review its contents at regular intervals. If it has been over a year, it is almost certainly time to revisit them. During open enrollment, or at the end of the year, is typically a good time to review and update policies that may be out of date.

Changes to laws

Federal, state, and local laws relating to employment change on a regular basis, sometimes with serious consequences to business owners. It is your responsibility to ensure that your Employee Handbook contains accurate legal information. For example, if your business has grown, the manual may no longer include up-to-date information about how to report complaints or handle situations. Certain state and federal labor laws may often depend on the number of employees or industry. 

Company structure

As your company grows, the number of employees may increase, department and job titles may change, and roles and responsibilities may be adjusted. When key employee information is included in your Employee Handbook, it is essential to keep it up to date to ensure employees understand the structure and to outline specific responsibilities. If onboarding new employees requires handing them several sheets of paper with addendums to company policies and the org chart, it's probably time to incorporate the changes and remove the clutter.

Changes to your benefits package

If you've made any changes to your benefits packages, including to perks like PTO, it is important to update your policies and handbook simultaneously or you risk them going out of date immediately.

What are some common scenarios that might require me to update my company's Employee Handbook?

Certain situations may require you to update employee documents. When one happens, it's also an opportunity to review all of your policies to ensure a cohesive and accurate set of key information. 

The most important reasons for immediate updates tend to be those required by law and those that could result in disciplinary action to employees if employees were to remain unaware of them. When your company makes changes to policies that impact employees, it is important that any changes are reflected in the handbook because employees are expected to follow the policies.  

Another example is when changes are made to the benefits package. These policies may affect employees in serious ways so the last thing that you want is confusion around benefits that have changed. The need to update policies is particularly important when you amend sick leave and health plan policies. 

Recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses were forced to scramble to define policies around how and when work can be done remotely. Many learned firsthand the importance of having an established, up-to-date Work from Home Policy.

The most critical time to update policies and associated documents is when changes to legal requirements affect your business. Outdated information about employment law may prevent employees from understanding their rights, and can even leave owners exposed to lawsuits.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, business owners have been forced to consider some things they may never have before, like the vaccination status of employees, which has been mandated in some industries. If your business requires that some or all employees are vaccinated, your Employee Handbook is the place to clearly lay out which employees are required to be vaccinated and how your company plans to verify vaccination status while respecting medical privacy and laws. You may want to use a Vaccination Policy to ensure you are not violating your employees' rights. 

Federal laws and most states have rules that require employers to post nondiscrimination policies. Failure to provide this information or to keep the information up to date can result in fines and even lawsuits. These requirements for employers to post (and follow) may be determined at the local, state, and federal levels.

The Affordable Care Act made major changes to the requirements of employers and the laws change periodically. Ensuring that your company policies are in line with the letter of the law regarding health coverage in your area is essential. 

The #MeToo movement has brought renewed attention to sexual harassment in the workplace, and many businesses don't have proper policies in place to address and prevent harassment. Make sure that your policies offer you the ability to investigate allegations of harassment and deal with any situations properly.

What are the right topics to cover in an Employee Handbook?

When putting together an Employee Handbook, there are a number of topics you'll want to make sure you include. Some are for legal protection, others may be required by law, and some set expectations for employees while at work. 

A comprehensive manual includes:

  • Code of conduct: The code of conduct portion clearly lays out behavioral expectations, including a late/tardy policy, how employees are expected to treat customers, clients, and each other, and any policies relating to discipline. 
  • Cell phone and social media policies: These policies restrict when, where, and how employees may use personal technology. You can start with a Cell Phone Company Policy and adapt it to your company's beliefs. A solid policy covers personal use and includes a section on best practices for social media posts about the business. This latter part can be tricky since you want to protect your business without creating a culture of distrust. A Social Media Policy is a good place to start. You may also want to consider a Non-Disparagement Employment Agreement that further protects your business interests.
  • Eligibility for benefits and other promotions: Thoroughly explain what benefits are offered to employees and include information about how to apply for benefits, who is eligible, and what the benefits cover; also include information about the expectations for a promotion, raise, or move to a different position. 
  • Anti-discrimination and favoritism rules: Your company may be required to follow certain anti-discrimination laws that are enforced at multiple levels of the government. Start by checking with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and your state employment agencies to find out if you are required to comply with these laws. Regardless, an Anti-Discrimination Policy can help to promote an inclusive work culture.  
  • Onboarding policies for new hires: Some businesses require employees to undergo a training period before being fully hired. Outline your onboarding policies so that new hires know exactly what is expected of them, how long the process takes, and how to complete it.
  • Policies for approaching the human resources department with concerns: These policies let employees know how to bring up concerns about their employment, including who to report to, what the company policy is on privacy of reports, and how concerns are addressed. A good idea is to create an Employee Complaint Form that employees can easily and discreetly submit.
  • Any rules and regulations required by state laws: States have specific laws that employers and employees must follow. Often, these are industry-specific, or for health and safety reasons. Employers are typically required to include this information in employee notices and on posters.

Before you issue a new Employee Handbook or manual, ask a Rocket Lawyer network attorney to review the document to help ensure that you have included the required information for your industry, size, location, and business. 

Are Employee Handbooks and policies legally binding?

Employee Handbooks and policies are generally not legally binding, but it is a good idea to include disclaimers to indicate that employees are at-will, meaning they can be terminated at any time for any reason or for no reason at all. If you have employees who are under contract, those contracts are a legally binding document. Generally, employees under contract are also required to follow the rules in the Employee Handbook, where it applies to them. 

However, some aspects of your handbook may be binding. For example, non-discrimination policies lay out the employer's responsibility in addressing claims or concerns. Failure to follow those policies can leave employers in hot water. Unclear benefits, time-off, and promotion policies may be used by employees against their employer in certain instances. 

A well-thought-out Employee Handbook does more than just inform employees of the company policies. It sets expectations for employees and describes the type of culture you are trying to promote. Good manuals guide employees with clear and concrete resolutions to problems that can be universally applied, outlining rights and responsibilities for employees and employers alike.

If you have more questions about updating your policies or making your Employee Handbook, reach out to a Rocket Lawyer network attorney for affordable legal advice.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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