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New Year's Resolution: Update the Employee Handbook

As 2016 comes to an end, it is time to focus on New Year’s resolutions and goals for your company. Updating (or creating a company employee handbook if you don’t have one already) should be at the top of your list of New Year’s resolutions. Generic employee handbooks are readily available on-line; however, most of them are generic and do not take into account your company’s culture and specific needs. They also are not industry or state-specific. If you have not updated your handbook in several years, many of your handbook items are more than likely outdated. As your company changes, the federal and state statutes that apply to your company do as well. 2016 brought many changes to employment law that should be reflected in your company policies. If you use a generic handbook and/or fail to update it on at least a yearly basis, you will most likely regret your decision when you are defending against a lawsuit or an unemployment compensation hearing. Is A Handbook Necessary? Employees like to know what is expected of them and they want to know that they are being treated the same way as other employees. The perception of unfair treatment can lead to disgruntled employees and, ultimately, to lawsuits. For example, if all employees know how many vacation days they receive, they won't be wondering if other employees are getting more days. Written policies show employees that your business wants to be fair. That intent goes a long way towards good morale in general and in dealing with individual employees who are discontented. Business owners may believe that handbooks are for larger corporations. Having the same rules for all employees, however, makes running a business easier, no matter how many employees. There is no need to think about what to do in a specific situation. While there are times when there will be no written policy about a specific issue, having some general guidelines can help deal with specific situations. A handbook is the best place to address issues and set policies in place to deal with them. Top 5 Reasons to Update Here are my top five reasons why your company should update their employee handbook in 2017: 1. Anti-Harassment and Discrimination Policies: Every handbook should have a general policy against harassment and discrimination and the handbook should outline the procedures for reporting such behavior to management. Most importantly, the policy should state that there will be no retaliation for a complaint, unless it was filed maliciously. Discrimination statutes are always changing, and a company policy must incorporate those changes. 2. Email, Social Media and Technology Policies: Handbooks should address the “do’s” and “don’ts” of electronic communication on company property and personal social media accounts while on company business. If these policies are written too broadly, they may be interpreted to have a chilling negative effect on employees’ rights to engage in “concerted activity,” which is a violation of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, as amended (even if the employer does not enforce it). 3. At-Will Employment Policy: North Carolina is an “at-will” employment state and employees should be reminded that their employment may be terminated at any time for any reason (i.e., without cause). Handbooks should not only include a statement regarding “at-will” employment, but also should state that the handbook is not a contract and is subject to modification by the company at any time and without prior notice. 4. Overtime and Attendance: The handbook should address office hours, attendance and overtime policies. The policy regarding excessive absences should be worded carefully so as not to violate the Family Medical Leave Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act. The policies for obtaining approval for overtime should also be addressed. With the changes to the federal overtime rules in limbo, it is important to keep abreast of any changes to the overtime rule requirements. 5. Disciplinary Policies: All handbooks should have a progressive disciplinary policy that is fairly generic to allow the company some flexibility in its application to each situation. And Then What? After the handbook is updated, there are several other matters you should consider: • Hire an Attorney. If an attorney did not draft the handbook or the updates, have an attorney review the handbook for compliance with employment statutes and common law and for conflicting or confusing language. • Communicate. Make sure all current employees know about the handbook and that it is available to them. Make sure each new employee receives a copy and signs to show receipt. Put a copy up on the company website. Remind employees about specific policies. In other words, make sure there's no way an employee can plead ignorance of the policies and procedures in the manual. • Implement and follow the handbook. Take action when you need to. Using the handbook to deal quickly with employee issues reinforces your intent to be fair and your intent to follow the handbook. • Revise and re-visit the handbook periodically. Update policies that have changed (make sure you communicate the changes immediately!) and consider other changes to address issues that have. If you change a policy and you don't change the handbook, you're inviting legal issues.

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