Small Business: Updating employee handbooks

Keeping a company's employee handbook up to date

Keeping a company's employee handbook up to date is important. "An employee handbook is either a living document or a ticking time bomb," explains Robert Boisvert, a labor and employment law specialist and partner at Minneapolis-based law firm Fredrikson & Byron. (Credit: iStock)

Jamie Herzlich

Newsday columnist Jamie Herzlich Jamie Herzlich

Herzlich writes the Small Business column in Newsday.

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An employee handbook is meant to be a guide for employees to understand their rights, the company's culture and what's expected of them in the workplace.

Oftentimes, it's overlooked or ignored and can become a dust collector.

But an outdated or poorly drafted handbook could be a liability, which makes it even more important for employers to update it regularly and keep abreast of changing state and federal laws.

"An employee handbook is either a living document or a ticking time bomb," explains Robert Boisvert, a labor and employment law specialist and partner at Minneapolis-based law firm Fredrikson & Byron.

It's not one size fits all, he notes, adding that pulling a generic template off the Internet could be dangerous.

For instance, larger employers -- generally defined as having 50 or more employees on the payroll for at least 20 weeks a year -- must have an updated Family and Medical Leave Act policy in their handbooks or a written guidance, he says. Smaller employers may be including this in their handbook unnecessarily, and by doing so are "now importing this law and all its implications," he says.

Most states will say that provisions in a handbook "create a contract," adds Boisvert.

ADDRESSING NEW POLICIES

Each state has different laws that apply to the workplace, and these need to be addressed in a handbook, says Grace Conti, executive vice president at Portnoy, Messinger, Pearl & Associates Inc., a Syosset HR and labor relations consulting firm.

For instance, within the past three years, break time for nursing mothers has come onto the books as a federal requirement, notes Gina Grath, staff attorney at Portnoy. New York State, and now the federal government, require that companies provide nursing mothers with reasonable break time during their workday to express milk, she notes. This should be addressed.

"If your handbook is at least 3 or 4 years old, it's time to rehaul it," advises Conti.

You may want to add a social media policy and one that addresses the use of company issued personal devices (e.g., smartphones and tablets), she says.

When the EconoLodge in Hicksville updated its handbook in July 2012, it decided it was time to include a social media policy, says Marlo Signoracci, the hotel's general manager. She worked with Portnoy on the update, the first since 2004.

"It was important that our employees understand that they don't communicate material that violates the privacy rights of another employee or the company on social media," Signoracci says. The new handbook also includes a computer and electronic communication system policy, dealing with such things as cellphone usage on premises.

Social media policies in general shouldn't inhibit the employee's right to discuss their pay and terms and condition of employment, says Boisvert. But they can prohibit discussing confidential business information such as trade secrets, he notes.

THINGS TO WATCH FOR

Other areas to consider, according to Keith Gutstein, a partner at the law firm of Kaufman Dolowich Voluck & Gonzo Llp in Woodbury:

An inclement weather policy that, at the very least, addresses who is responsible for announcing company closures and where employees can look to find information;

A vacation policy that includes how employees may accrue vacation time and when vacation time may be forfeited;

A discrimination and harassment policy with a clear procedure for reporting complaints, including up-to-date information on whom to contact;

A paycheck-error complaint procedure that addresses protocol if mistakes occur.


TREAD CAREFULLY

Most handbook policies should be written using flexible language. Avoid words like "will," "always," and "never." Instead, use "may," "ordinarily," "typically" and "generally."

Source: Robert Boisvert