One of the most powerful tools available to human resource workers and business owners is the employee handbook. Whether they are designed to create a shared sense of purpose, align the workforce, share company missions, or just provide a clear set of answers to common questions, employee handbooks can be an invaluable way to make managing a workforce easier. This article will focus on the lawful roles of employee handbooks, the legal benefits and challenges of creating a comprehensive employee handbook, and how a sound employee handbook can protect businesses from lawsuits and other legal trouble.
The Legal Importance of Employee Handbooks
Most businesses operating in or near Lancaster County know that Pennsylvania is an “at-will employment” state. That means, essentially, that an employer can terminate employees at any time and employees can quit at any time, with neither party having any fear of legal consequences or liability. However, Pennsylvania’s at-will employment laws do have limits. They do not protect companies from wrongful termination suits or discrimination charges, for instance. As such, employers must make sure that all hiring and termination decisions are thoroughly documented, fair, and most importantly supported by well-communicated policies and procedures.
Therefore, it is crucial for any Pennsylvania business–small or large–to share their company policies with all employees. A good employee handbook accomplishes this. Employee handbooks should cover any common reason that a worker could be terminated. They should also map out basic information such as:
- Dress code
- Hours of work
- Introductory or probationary periods
- Employee benefits
- Overtime policy
- Paid time off (like personal days or vacation days)
- The use of personal phones at work
- Social media policies
Employee Handbooks are More Than Rulebooks
A lot of employers also find that employee handbooks can serve purposes outside of setting the specific rules that employees must follow. They can also share a mission statement, the general attitude employees should have during customer service, the vision the company has for its industry, and the values the company holds.
The employee handbook is also an appropriate place for businesses to announce that they are equal opportunity employers, include the legally required language on pay deductions, publish payday schedules, outline benefits, and insurance coverage, state policies on jury duty and military leave, share the policy on unpaid leave and absence, and (if the business has more than 15 employees) discuss their compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Keeping Things Transparent
Employee handbooks in Lancaster County should offer a practical way to address conflict at the workplace before it grows into legal problems. By thoroughly explaining procedures for submitting complaints, accusations, protests, or whistleblowing, businesses give their employees a clear path for sharing unethical, illegal, or otherwise undesirable behavior. When companies have a proper channel for employees to redress grievances and resolve conflict internally, they can save themselves a lot of external legal trouble down the line.
It is also wise to consult a local qualified attorney to make sure that these processes comply with all state and national employment laws. An experienced Pennsylvania attorney can recommend additional systems and methods to ensure management can deal with conflicts effectively, ethically, and legally.
Do Employee Handbooks Provide Legal Protection?
One of the biggest advantages of a good employee handbook for Pennsylvania businesses is the legal protection they offer. A well-crafted handbook that all employees are required to review and sign upon hiring is a huge help during a wrongful termination suit.
Businesses should know, however, that it is crucial for employee handbooks to state with absolute clarity that they are not an employment contract. If the handbook is unclear on that point, plaintiffs in wrongful termination suits can charge that the handbook substituted as an employment contract, and they could use it as evidence to override the at-will relationship. Plaintiffs can also use the lack of an employee handbook as the basis of a wrongful termination lawsuit.
There is a very long list of cases in Pennsylvania courts that challenge the role of employee handbooks. Consistently, courts have ruled that there are serious legal liabilities for businesses that do not create a handbook, so it is smart for any Lancaster County business to take the issue very seriously. Some companies consider an employee handbook as something that is optional: nice to have, but by no means necessary. But as a multitude of Pennsylvania lawsuits illustrate, an inadequate handbook can land employers in court. Operating a business without an employee handbook leaves employers far more vulnerable to legal action. As such, a comprehensive handbook is one of the best investments of time and money that an employer can make.
A Contract and Legal Document
Employee handbooks are cited so often in Pennsylvania legal actions that companies should consider a handbook to be a legal document. Therefore, it is wise to ask a legal professional before creating handbooks or to get a legal review on ones already written. If you’d like to talk to the business law professionals at Going and Plank about reviewing or creating a strong employee handbook, contact us today.
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