There are many reasons to create an employee handbook that are predicated on sharing company missions, aligning the workforce, creating a shared sense of purpose, and simply providing a set of answers to common human resource and employment questions.
In this blog entry, we’ll focus on the lawful roles of employee handbooks, and hone in on the legal benefits and challenges of creating a comprehensive employee handbook. Angela Ward is an Associate at Going and Plank and has over 20 years of experience in business law in Lancaster County and throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Ms. Ward has agreed to help us explain why creating sound employee handbooks can protect your company from lawsuits.
Legal Considerations for Employee Handbooks
Most businesses in Lancaster County and throughout our area are aware that Pennsylvania is an at-will employment state. At-will generally means that an employer can terminate employees at any time, or that employees can quit at any time, without fear of legal liability. However, Pennsylvania’s at-will status does not protect companies from wrongful termination suits or discrimination charges. That means that employers must ensure that employment decisions are fair, thoroughly documented, and supported by well-communicated policies and procedures.
Whether you’re a large or small business, you’ll need to share company policies with your employees. Mapping out basic information such as introductory or probation periods, employee benefits, hours of work, overtime policy, dress code, paid time off such as personal days or vacation days, and the use of personal phones and social media are at the foundation of even the simplest handbooks.
Employee Handbooks are an Incredibly Practical Tool
Many companies also find that an employee handbook is a great place to share a mission statement, a vision for their industry, expectations for attitude and customer services, and company values.
Your handbook is also a good place to share that you are an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) employer, include legally-mandated language on pay deductions, publish payday schedules, outline benefits, state policies on jury duty and military leave, communicate your policy on unpaid leaves of absence, and, if you have more than 15 employees, discuss your compliance with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Employee Handbooks Explain Redress of Grievances
By thoroughly explaining procedures for submitting complaints, protests, accusations, or whistleblowing, you give your employees a clear path for sharing unethical or illegal behavior. Employee handbooks should offer a practical way to address workplace issues before they grow into legal problems. When our team at Going and Plank helps companies with employee handbooks, we review your procedures to make sure processes comply with state and national employment law. We may also recommend additional systems and methods that you can put in place to ensure your management team is able to deal with conflicts effectively and legally.
Employee Handbooks can Provide Legal Protection
Businesses can protect themselves in some measure from wrongful termination suits if they create and share well-crafted employee handbooks. These companies can protect themselves legally by requiring that all employees review and sign handbooks when hired. Companies should also require similar reviews and signatures whenever handbooks are edited or updated.
When creating or editing your company’s employee handbook, it’s critical that you clearly state that your handbook is NOT an employment contract. If your handbook is not clear on this point, plaintiffs may charge that the handbook substituted as an employment contract and may use it as a tool to override the at-will relationship. Employees can also use the lack of an employee handbook as the basis for a wrongful termination action.
There is a long list of Pennsylvania court cases challenging the role of the employee handbook. The well-documented legal liabilities created by the lack of an adequate handbook should convince companies to take handbooks seriously. An employee handbook is the foundation of a legally-sound approach for dealing with at-will employment, company expectations, discrimination and harassment policies, and termination procedures.
Is Your Employee Handbook Doing its job?
Some companies consider an employee handbook as an optional tool that’s “nice to have” but not essential. As numerous Pennsylvania lawsuits can illustrate, an inadequate handbook can fail to protect you in court. Operating without a handbook leaves you even more vulnerable to legal action. That’s why creating a solid, comprehensive employee handbook is an excellent investment of time and money.
Employee Handbooks are Legal Documents
Because employee handbooks are often cited in legal actions, companies should consider a handbook to be a legal document. Whether you ask your business lawyer to create a handbook or to examine existing documents, legal review is essential. If you’d like to talk to Going and Plank about creating or reviewing an employee handbook, contact us today.