Discrimination Issues. Every employee handbook should contain a non-discrimination provision which sets forth the employer's commitment to comply with federal and state anti-discrimination laws. Such provisions typically state that the employer is an "equal opportunity employer" and does not discriminate on the basis of age, race, sex, color, religion, national origin, disability and, in Michigan, height, weight and marital status.
In addition, every handbook should have a policy prohibiting harassment on the basis of sex or any other protected status. This policy should define what is not permitted and also provide a mechanism by which a complaining employee may bypass the alleged harasser. It is critical that the employer have a policy which addresses not only sex harassment but other forms of harassment as well (e.g., racial harassment).
At Will Status. Most employers seek to protect their at will status, meaning that the employer and employee are free to terminate employment at any time, with or without cause. An at will policy should be prominently stated in an employee handbook. An at will employer should never use a probationary period.
Policy Against Violence. The recent trend in workplace violence has led many employers to adopt a specific policy concerning this issue. Simply stated, most policies provide for a zero-tolerance attitude towards violent or threatening behavior. Many policies provide that threatening language or conduct will be treated as severely as an actual act of violence.
Technology Policy. The wide use of computers and other technology in the workplace has brought about the need for policies which address the use of and access to such devises as the telephones, e-mail systems, the Internet, fax machines and voice mail systems. Essentially, these policies seek to maintain the employer's right of access to its own systems. These policies also address the use of "bootleg" programs which can result in significant fines to employers.
Rules of Conduct. Many handbooks contain a list of acceptable conduct for employees. In addition, these rules of conduct often include a progressive discipline system. Employers should take care not to undo their at will status through the adoption of a strict progressive discipline system. Rather, employers should always reserve discretion when making discipline decisions.
Non-Solicitation/Distribution Policy. Many employers adopt policies prohibiting the solicitation for, and distribution of, non-work related matters (e.g., candy sales, raffle tickets, union cards) in working areas and during working time. These policies must be carefully worded to comply with requirements under the national Labor relations Act.
Compensation Policies. Many handbooks address such compensation issues as payroll procedures, advances, shift premiums, overtime pay and payroll deductions. Few handbooks set forth actual pay scales.
Benefit Policies. Most handbooks set forth vacation and holiday policies. These should be carefully drafted to address such issues as eligibility, calculation of the benefit and whether any accrued benefit is paid out upon termination of employment.
If an employer has a payroll practice of paying short term disability, such a policy also should be very carefully drafted. Numerous issues concerning STD benefits can arise, including eligibility, calculation of the benefit or whether the benefit is offset by other income (e.g., benefits under a no-fault auto insurance policy).
Leave Policies. If an employer has 50 or more employees, the employer may be required to comply with the Family and Medical Leave Act. The FMLA requires an employer to adopt a specific policy in its employee handbook. This policy should be carefully coordinated with other paid-time-off policies (e.g., sick pay, vacation, STD, etc.). An employer should also be aware that an employee may be eligible for time off for military service.
Conclusion. An employer should not lightly undertake the preparation of an employee handbook. Poorly drafted policies can cause more harm than good. A well drafted handbook, however, can avoid numerous workplace problems and disputes.