Time to Update Your Employee Handbook

July 14, 2016

Summer time is a great time for business owners to dust of their employee handbooks!

Handbooks provide employers the ability to communicate with their employees about policies and practice. They provide clear statements about the company’s mission, brand and culture, and engage employees. However, after creating a handbook, businesses must regularly maintain them for changes in the business and the law.

Some of the topics that employers address in their handbooks include:

  • Sexual harassment and discrimination
  • Disability accommodation
  • Wage and payroll
  • Social media and data privacy
  • Leave benefits
  • Attendance
  • Holidays and other permitted time off
  • State specific laws

Employee handbooks do not need to address every specific aspect of a business, but certain policies must be included if an employer adopts an employee handbook.

Many business owners mistakenly use policies contained in another company’s handbook and implement the policies without understanding their legal responsibilities and consequences. This can be a costly mistake. For example, a business with less than 50 employees that adopts a leave policy that mirrors the Family Medical Leave Act, which provides up to 12 weeks of protected leave under certain circumstances to qualifying employees in businesses with 50 or more employees. While a business may implement generous leave policies, the business owner should first understand the legal issues associated with such a decision.

Another reason to have an attorney review your handbook is to ensure it contains appropriate language that does not create or result in an implied contract. Several courts have ruled that in certain circumstances handbooks may create an implied contract with an employee.

Laws regularly change, and this warrants seeking an attorney familiar with the applicable laws to review the employee handbook on a regular basis. Several federal law changes will or have impacted many employment policies. For example, the Fair Labor Standard Act’s regulation changes, which become effective on December 1, 2016, will impact whether certain employees will maintain their exempt status from the overtime and minimum wage requirements of this law. Additionally, U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 2015 expanded certain rights to pregnant employees. The National Labor Relation Board also had several decisions that affect how certain employers may regulate their employees’ use of social media. The U.S. Department of Labor also issued an administrative interpretation concerning the proper classification of employees and independent contractors.

Massachusetts law changes in 2015 should also trigger a business’ decision to hire an attorney to review its handbook. The Massachusetts Earned Sick Time law requires employers to provide employees that primarily work in Massachusetts with up to 40 hours each year with protected sick leave. Whether the sick leave is paid or unpaid depends on the number of employees. Additionally, the Massachusetts Parental Leave Act was expanded to apply to both males and female employees with protected leave to employees for the birth or adoption of a child. Additionally, there are many state laws that require employers notify their employees of their rights in writing. These reasons warrant an attorney’s review of a business’ policies to ensure compliance with the law.

Once a business drafts an employee handbook that business must maintain the handbook. Employment attorneys will assist businesses with the initial drafting of a handbook tailored to the business’ needs as well as regularly review the handbook to ensure an employer’s continued legal compliance. An employment attorney can also determine if an employee handbook is even necessary for a particular business. Businesses must seek an attorney’s advice before implementing any employee handbook.

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