Get A Handle On Your Handbook
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Get A Handle On Your Handbook

A solid employee handbook creates the least amount of risk for yourself. Learn how to reduce your chances of being sued over or having to defend against a workplace issue.

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January 14, 2021

As a business owner, consider an employee handbook as creating the least amount of risk for yourself, and as a way of reducing your chances of being sued over and having to defend against a workplace issue.

One of the biggest issues employers without handbooks have to contend with is inadvertently creating an arbitrary approach to things in the workplace where you allow one person to do one thing, but another person is prohibited, says Justine Baackman, an attorney with the Philadelphia office of Freeman, Mathis and Gary. This leaves an employer vulnerable to an employee’s claim of discrimination.

For example, he or she perceives they are not permitted something due to gender, or a disability, or a plethora of other things.

“You, as the business owner, may have a very good reason for why you allowed one person to do one thing and another person to do something else,” Baakman says. “But from someone looking at this as potential litigation, you want to be able to say you have a policy and procedure in place that is documented, and everyone is treated the same way.

“And as a business owner, you need to look at [an employee handbook] as creating the least amount of risk for yourself, and a way of reducing your chances of being sued over and defend against a workplace issue,” she adds. “And not only is it important to document that new employees have read your company’s handbook, but anytime it’s updated employees should acknowledge they’ve read the update and understand it, as well.”

A good starting point is to reach out to your legal counsel, who will have a template of an employee handbook document that can serve as a starting point for your company’s own document. In fact, it’s very easy to remove and add particular sections that fit they type of business you’re operating and based on the overall nature of your business.

In fact, a number of recent issues have created circumstances to either update existing handbooks or create an all new up-to-date and all-encompassing employee document.

First, your handbook should include a policy related to the COVID pandemic that address a number of issues. For example:

  • Are you requesting your employees have their temperatures checked every day?
  • Are you going to have them certify when they arrive every day that they haven’t experienced certain symptoms related to COVID, such as a cough or fever?
  • Are you going to have a policy that says if a worker is exposed to someone who is COVID positive, then at what point do they need to report that to you, the employer?

“There are the types of questions COVID has forced employers to deal with, and they need to set policy to deal with them,” Baakman says. “With snow and ice management, you may have people who are working in close proximity to one another throughout the day. Obviously, if they’re working outside, then they can hopefully socially distance. But when they are traveling from site to site in vehicles together, presumably they’re not going to be able to six feet apart.

“So, it’s important to assess and determine what types of policies do you want to have in place to address these issues and to guide employees on what they need to report back to you,” she adds.

The bottom line is you need to have these policies and procedures in place and to be certain that your workforce knows what they are, whether that’s through an email that documents your policies related to COVID and what your require of them whether they end up being positive or someone else in their household tests positive.

In addition, if you have an employee tests positive for COVID, Baakman says the handbook should address the police with regard to notifying others they’ve worked with that they may have potentially been exposed. However, this is considered sensitive medical information, and there is only so much HIPA-related information you can tell your employees about an individual with a positive COVID test.

“The laws are constantly changing about COVID policy and we’re constant learning new things about this virus,” she says. “That’s why it is so important to consult with your legal counsel before you start creating workplace policies on your own about what should be done.”

In addition, a lot of attention has been given to addressing appropriate behavior in the workplace environment, and this is another place that needs to be addressed and updated in your employee handbook.

“There’s a fine line you can walk between how much you want to regulate and what you can not regulate with regard to what your employees say inside and outside of work,” Baakman says. “Something I’ve seen a lot of clients do is to begin a dialogue with employees about what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate language and behavior in the workplace and establish policy around that. So, someone has overheard another worker say something racial insensitive, then who can they go and talk to about that, whether it’s HR or a manager they can go and talk to.

“You want to make sure employees feel they are in an environment where they can go to talk to someone and it’s not necessarily the same person who said the questionable or offensive thing,” she adds.

This is also a prime opportunity to engage in training around these issues, Baakman says.

“If you are faced with downtime, then this is a great place to provide some valuable training, whether it deals with sexual harassment and social justice all the way to workplace cyber security,” she adds. “Employees appreciate an employer who understands that the state of the world right now is so much different than it was in February and March of 2020 and this recognizes that. It certainly goes a long way to recognizing low morale in the workplace and can end up being a motivating and uplifting exercise for your employees.”

Mike Zawacki is editor of Snow Magazine