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The Evolving Employee Handbook: Issues to Consider

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fizkes / Getty Images
  • Employee handbooks can be tedious to write but could save your company from prolonged disputes and legal action.
  • Employee handbooks should cover company policy on major concepts and laws regarding employer-employee relations.
  • There are certain topics you should cover in the handbook to maximize your protection in disputes with employees.

Many organizations issue an employee handbook, an official document that covers the company's policies on everything from computer use to vacation time. As new technologies and business laws take hold in offices, human resources departments must update those policies to reflect the trends.

This is easier said than done. A survey by HR compliance resource XpertHR found that, although 78% of businesses made revisions to their handbook within the previous two years, the biggest challenge for 41% was keeping their handbooks up to date with an ever-changing workplace and workforce.

"Employee handbooks continue to be a perennial challenge and opportunity for employers," said Peggy Carter-Ward, head of content at XpertHR, in a statement. "The challenges of keeping up with a changing workforce, new laws and just getting employees to read the handbook are not new, yet addressing evolving workplace issues ... [is] complex."

Though it may be a difficult task, it's an important one: Updating your handbook to include emerging laws and trends, even if they haven't affected your company yet, will help head off confusion among employees. Staying ahead of the curve can also help your business stay out of legal trouble. 

"Handbooks can be an excellent tool to ensure consistency in employee management as well as to make sure that all employees and supervisors are familiar with their rights and obligations," Carter-Ward said. "However, improperly drafted handbooks can create potential liability for employers and leave them susceptible to employee legal claims based on the content of the handbook."

The exact wording and information in your company's employee handbook should be specific to your organization and industry, but there are certain topics you should cover to protect yourself in the event of a violation. According to a Society for Human Resource Management article, here is what businesses should cover in employee handbooks to prevent or mitigate disputes and legal action.  

The internet creates amazing opportunities for businesses to be more efficient and productive, but it can also cause headaches if you don't clarify the proper usage. Your employee handbook should outline your company's policies on what social media usage is permitted during work hours (if it's not part of an employee's job responsibilities).  

Technology also creates issues with piracy and the distribution of data. An employee handbook should outline your company's position and expectations on protecting sensitive data. For instance, you could prohibit employees from downloading certain apps on work computers, responding to unsolicited emails, or conducting any other activity that may lead to information leaking, intentionally or unintentionally. 

Employers should allow workers special accommodations in specific circumstances. Mental health problems, physical illness or injury, and pregnancy are all circumstances that employers must respect and allow employees to change their work habits to accommodate if necessary.

Your handbook should detail your company policy regarding these events and address employee expectations. If you don't make accommodations during these serious life events, you may be violating a law – and if you don't outline the specific allowances and expectations in writing, an employee could take advantage or raise a legal dispute. 

Likewise, if employees are entitled to any paid vacation time, the employee handbook should address this. This allows workers to plan their schedules and gives companies an easy way to enforce the amount of time granted for vacation. 

Payroll issues can cause headaches for employers and should be addressed in an employee handbook to minimize legal ramifications. Overtime can be a nightmare if not properly addressed. If an employee works beyond their normal hours, they are entitled to fair compensation. Many organizations require their employees to notify managers if they need overtime, but it often happens without being planned. Failure to pay employees overtime can result in legal action, so a handbook should detail the company procedure regarding overtime and explain the process required to receive additional pay. 

Improper deductions can also leave companies vulnerable to a lawsuit. Payroll errors do occur and can be easily fixed if caught quickly, but there can be serious consequences if they go unnoticed and an employee gets upset. A proper handbook details the company's commitment to reducing these errors and what employees should do if they notice any improper deductions. 

The expectations regarding drugs and alcohol should be in the employee handbook. Illegal drugs are simple enough to prohibit, but you may want to go into more detail about alcohol, tobacco and marijuana.  

Some companies allow moderate drinking in specific circumstances (such as company parties), while others forbid it. Recreational and medical marijuana have varying degrees of legality across states. As an employer, you have the right to prohibit the use of certain substances, and your handbook should spell out your expectations regarding marijuana use. 

Cigarettes and vape pens are other topics the handbook should discuss. Although employees may be permitted to use nicotine, you may have rules about smoke breaks and vape pen use that the handbook should outline to avoid conflict.  

According to the XpertHR survey, these are the top emerging workplace issues being addressed in U.S. employee handbooks:

  • Paid sick leave (79.4%)
  • Data privacy (67.2%)
  • Social media (64.2%)
  • E-cigarettes (20.6%)
  • LGBT protection (17.2%)
  • BYOD policies (14.5%)

Although wearable technology and medical marijuana are hot topics among the general population, just 4.1% and 6.4% of organizations tackle them in their official handbooks, respectively. XpertHR surveyed 521 representatives from public, private, and nonprofit organizations about their workplace policies and employee handbooks. 

No matter which topics you ultimately decide to address in your handbook, discuss them with your staff and get their input before issuing official policies.

Business News Daily Editor

Business News Daily was founded in 2010 as a resource for small business owners at all stages of their entrepreneurial journey. Our site is focused exclusively on giving small business advice, tutorials and insider insights. Business News Daily is owned by Business.com.