2010 February: By the Book

Employees may not pay much attention to that little handbook you give them when they’re hired. But just because they aren’t all that interested in their employee handbook doesn’t mean you can toss it together haphazardly, or, worse, skip it altogether.

“Handbooks are very important, almost crucial to the livelihood and the survival of a company,” said Atlanta-based consultant Pat Reda, owner of P.J. Reda and Associates Inc. “How can you hold employees accountable if you don’t tell them what you are holding them accountable for and the guidelines for employment?”

Minnesota-based Green Mill Restaurants requires all of its franchised restaurants to give out an employee handbook at orientation, and for a trainer at the restaurant to go through the handbook page by page with employees. “Every single employee, down from general manager to the dishwasher, has a copy of the handbook,” said Barb Walters, Green Mill director of training. The company has 28 restaurants in four states.

Store owners may add to the handbook, particularly to address state and local rules and regulations, Walters said. The handbook is reviewed periodically and revised if needed.

Mary Jule Erickson, chief financial officer of Green Mill, said the company’s handbook is about 15 pages long, and it has become increasingly important in recent years. “It’s becoming more and more critical to have more information more clearly defined for the employee,” Erickson said. “Sexual harassment is just one example of an issue that has become big nationally that has to be addressed in handbooks.”

The most critical element of an employee handbook is a statement that the handbook is not a contract, said Marcy Frost, an attorney who works in the employment law arena for Minneapolis-based Moss & Barnett, a law firm. Frost advises clients to state “This is not a contract” on the first and last pages of the handbook. “You aren’t guaranteeing anything,” Frost said. “You want the handbook to be a resource of what generally takes place, but you want to leave yourself enough flexibility that you can deviate from it if you so choose. There are cases in Minnesota courts where the employee sued a company for deviating from its disciplinary policy. The company said in its handbook it would issue a verbal warning, a written warning and then final written warning before termination. In one case, the employer didn’t do that, and the employee claimed that action violated the company’s own handbook — and the judge agreed.”

The next most important item to cover legally in a handbook is the company’s anti-sexual harassment, anti-retaliation and anti-discrimination policies, Frost says, to ensure that all employees know their rights and to discourage violations. Also, a restaurant with more than 50 employees may want to include a Family and Medical Leave Act policy. Federal law requires that those businesses that qualify give employees a copy of an official notice of their rights under FMLA upon hiring. “You either have to give it to them when you hire them or put it in your handbook,” Frost said. “It’s easier and makes more sense to me to put it in the handbook.”

Pizza restaurants that offer delivery services should include a driver’s policy that covers behavior on the road and issues such as insurance. If your restaurant doesn’t cover drivers on the restaurant’s insurance, make that known to your employees who drive for work purposes. Restaurants are open to a large amount of liability if drivers are speeding to deliver food on time and not properly insured, Frost said, and some policies can specifically disallow coverage while a person is working in a delivery job.

A few other elements of the employee handbook cause some disagreements among experts. While Frost doesn’t advise her clients to have a progressive discipline policy or a list of prohibited actions in the handbook or an explanation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Reda said she recommends all three items to her clients. Frost believes that a list of actions a person cannot take while working — such as stealing or sleeping — will inevitably leave some action out, leading to confusion on the part of employees. Reda said she usually advises clients to include a list so that employees know concretely what is allowed and what is not.

Frost believes that ADA matters are covered by an anti-discrimination policy, and that most ADA accommodations are specific for a situation, so there is not a good way to describe how an employee would be accommodated until the disability is present.

Employers need to be specific, both Frost and Reda said, about what happens to vacation days when someone leaves the company. Be aware that law on this issue varies from state to state, Frost said. A sick leave policy should also be established in the handbook.

Once a handbook is written, it should be reviewed by an employment law attorney, said Reda, and periodically updated. Keeping the handbook updated is worth the hassle.

“A good employee handbook can mean the difference of a labor court ruling in your favor or in an employee’s favor,” Reda says. “A good handbook sets everyone up for success.” ?

Robyn Davis Sekula is a freelance writer living in New Albany, Indiana

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