When was the last time you really scrutinized your employee handbook?
For a growing number of employers, the answer is “the last time an employee used it to bring a lawsuit against us.”
Employee handbooks are essential to establish appropriate rules and procedures for the workplace. But as unusual employee situations continue to pop up, many employers create overly broad policies that are meant to protect the company in any possible scenario, but may go too far, leaving an open invitation for an administrative charge or even a lawsuit.
Thus, employers must walk a fine line between establishing appropriate policies and overreaching their bounds. When examining the company handbook, consider the following common handbook topics that can often lead to legal issues:
1. Company property
Employers should state that employees should have no expectation of privacy or ownership when using company systems or equipment and that all company property must be returned when an employee leaves the company.
But don’t say that deductions for unreturned or damaged company property will be taken from pay. Employers cannot legally deduct money from employees’ pay without their written authorization.
In workplaces where some employees may have individual or union contracts, employers should acknowledge those contracts in the employee handbook. The handbook should also state which takes precedence in the case that there is a discrepancy between the handbook and the contract.
But don’t make the handbook itself a contract. While many employers include a disclaimer that “this handbook is not a contract,” language within in the handbook may appear to make promises to employees, such as saying “will” instead of “may.”
Employers should establish a confidentiality policy regarding proprietary information and require employees to sign a confidentiality agreement prohibiting them from leaking information to competitors, even after they leave the company.
But don’t take the confidentiality policy so far as to even arguably prevent employees from talking with one another about workplace conditions and wages. Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), employees have the right to discuss workplace conditions with one another, and the confidentiality policy should state that it is not intended to infringe upon those rights.
4. Procedures for discipline
A good employee discipline policy should clearly outline the consequences for violating company rules and ensure that all employees are disciplined fairly.
But don’t make the policy rigid. Employers should always state that they may bypass steps in the process when necessary and that a repeated offense need not be identical to a previous offense to warrant discipline.
5. Social media
Employers should remind employees that social media is a public forum, and that they may not post unlawful, harassing, threatening or obscene statements. Health care employees are also prohibited from posting any photos of or comments about patients, as that would violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
But don’t broadly prohibit employees from talking about work on social media. The rights under the NLRA to discuss workplace conditions apply to social media, and a social media policy should state that it is not meant to interfere with protected rights.
The most important rule of employee handbooks is that they should be tailored specifically to each company’s needs with consultation from an attorney. Because the laws vary by state, locality and industry, it’s never a good idea to use an online template to form company policy.
Jane Lewis Volk is an employment attorney at Pittsburgh-based law firm Meyer, Unkovic & Scott and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.