Every employer should have a handbook – even small employers with just a handful of employees. An employee handbook sets forth, at a minimum, basic policies affecting employment. These policies not only define the employment relationship and set expectations, but they reduce your risk of liability. Of course, it is not enough merely to draft policies and include them in a handbook – you must consistently enforce them. So what are the “bones” of an employee handbook? The following describes six critical policies that I believe should be included in a handbook.
Disclaimers generally appear at the beginning of the handbook and define the basic tenets of the employment relationship. First, the employer “disclaims” that the handbook creates a contract of employment and makes clear that it supersedes any verbal agreements made with respect to employment. The disclaimer should also state that the employer retains the right to modify or amend policies at any time. Finally, the disclaimer affirms the at-will status of employment, which means that the employment relationship can be terminated by either party at any time for any or no reason.
Every handbook should contain a policy that defines unlawful harassment and discrimination and identifies all protected categories under local, state and federal law. The policy should identify to whom complaints of harassment or discrimination should be made and promise that every complaint of discrimination or harassment will be fully and fairly investigated. The policy should also make clear that retaliation will not be tolerated.
Work Hours and Pay Practices
A policy regarding work hours should address breaks and meal periods for non-exempt employees. These breaks and meal periods are required by both state and federal law. This policy should also define the workweek, explain how overtime works and instruct employees to bring any discrepancies in their pay to the company’s immediate attention so it can be rectified. Such policies go a long way in avoiding costly wage and hour claims down the road based on not being paid for hours worked.
Leaves of Absence
Identify whether or not eligible employees are entitled to medical leave under the Family Medical Leave Act and explain how a request is made, what notice is required, qualifying reasons for leave and the parameters of medical leave. If your company is not covered under the FMLA and you wish to provide medical leave on a case-by-case basis, explain what that looks like and to whom a request should be made.
Employees with Disabilities
All employers should have a policy affirming their commitment to providing equal opportunity to employees with disabilities. In order to carry out this legal obligation, you need to identify to whom an employee may make a confidential request for reasonable accommodation based on disability. Remember that medical leave may also be a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Washington law.
Drug and Alcohol Abuse
Particularly, in light of I-502, which legalizes recreational use of marijuana in Washington State, it is crucial that you clearly define expectations with respect to drug/alcohol use on the job. In order to enforce any drug policy, you should also identify what types of testing will be conducted: 1) pre-employment; 2) reasonable suspicion; 3) post-accident; or 4) random.