The Benefits of an Employee Handbook
By Stephanie P. Karn
Regardless of the size of your practice, an employee handbook can be a valuable tool. The overwhelming goal of such a handbook is to establish clear and uniform communications with your employees. As the courts in Virginia have recognized, “[t]he primary purpose of these manuals is to educate and insure uniformity of treatment among similarly situated employees.” Bryarly v. Shenandoah Univ., 41 Va. Cir. 238, 243 (Winchester 1996). To avoid claims of disparate treatment (claims that can and do lead to litigation), your employees should be subject to the same policies, job requirements, and expectations as every other similarly-classified employee. An employee handbook, then, can be used to thwart a claim that an employee was promised special treatment or is somehow “above the rules.”
Even in the smallest of organizations, a handbook can ensure that everyone understands both the goals of the business and what is expected of each employee. If you asked your employees to describe your business, it is likely that each person would answer differently. Moreover, as employees change jobs and careers more frequently, a single source of practice offerings and expectations can make day-to-day office management easier and more efficient.
Employee handbooks do not need to be all-encompassing or updated daily to be effective. A handbook that addresses basic but essential information can be prepared by legal counsel fairly quickly and at low cost. Once in place, provided you reserve the right to amend the handbook (as discussed below), minor and/or periodic updates are even quicker and more efficient. Providing a handbook to each employee – at hiring and again upon updates or on an annual or biennial basis – ensures that no employee can claim ignorance of an established policy or practice.
Key provisions of any employee handbook would include the following:
• Declaration of at-will1 status and written acknowledgment by the employee
• Statement that the employer can change any and all policies in the handbook
• Attendance requirements, including call-in obligations (Failure to abide by a company’s policy, established in its handbook, to confirm posted work schedules and report all absences may be used to deny claims for unemployment compensation)
• Equal Employment Opportunity policy
• Discrimination and Harassment policy
• Overtime policy (Requiring prior written approval, for example)
• Employee conduct and work rules (Providing examples of conduct that may result in disciplinary action, up to and including immediate dismissal)
• Leave policies, vacation pay, paid time off
• Electronics communication policy – confirm no expectation of privacy on any electronic device owned or supplied by your practice
• Drug and alcohol testing
• Prohibitions against outside employment, solicitations
• Social Media use
Finally, if you already have a handbook, an annual review will help ensure that your policies are up-to-date and in accord with current laws.
1In the absence of any contract, employment in Virginia is considered “at-will,” which means both the employee and the employer are free to terminate the employment at any time, for any reason, with or without notice, except as prohibited by applicable law.
Stephanie P. Karn is an attorney with Goodman, Allen & Filetti, PLLC. Stephanie oversees the firm’s employment practice; for more than 18 years, she has litigated claims and counseled employers on all aspects of employment law, including the development and implementation of policies, compliance with employment statutes and regulations, investigation of employee misconduct and employee termination. Visit www.goodmanallen.com for more information.