The subject of employment manuals usually arises when the number of employees in an enterprise grows to a point where management decides it would be helpful to employee relations to codify and publish certain company policies and procedures. Also an existing manual may need updating. The manual is the company’s general statement of what it expects from its employees and the scope of benefits it provides. If management deems a manual would be helpful or modifications to a current manual are advisable, a review of the reasons for and the adoption of a manual need to be undertaken. Several requirements and limits must be analyzed in any review process.
1. Contents of a manual should not be expansive. However, the legal realities of the workplace must be addressed. There are no limits placed upon the contents of an employee manual. Certain legal realities make it necessary that an employee manual state the employer’s position concerning the “at will” nature of employment with the enterprise. If appropriate, employment subject to a collective bargaining agreement must be addressed. The company must state it is an equal employment opportunity employer. Certain legally prohibited discriminatory activities should be described along with the employer’s commitment to ensure compliance. The employees are expected to also fully comply. As examples, certain requirements are set out in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the regulations of the EEOC, the ADA and FMLA, among other state and federal requirements. A harassment prohibition position must also be stated.
2. The manual is a method to inform and place the employees on notice in a general way the goals and major understandings expected by management. Also, the manual should point out the expected general behavior of the employees. This should not be an extensive list of “dos and don’ts” or a long list of commandments. A general statement that the employer expects loyalty and punctuality on the part of its employees is a starting point.
3. An employee manual is used to state the employer’s expectations concerning on-the-job drug use and immigration matters. The manual is used to inform employees that the employer will not permit unlawful drug or alcohol use on the job. Immigration regulations must be followed, and notice to employees is accomplished in the manual. Furthermore, remedies and sanctions resulting from discipline should not be detailed in the employment manual. It is sufficient to state that sanctions for any prohibited activity may lead to employment separation.
4. In a limited manner, the manual is to inform the employees of the company’s available benefits and vacation rules. Allowed time off for illness or injury is usually set out. Also, vacation time accumulation is described. The availability of 401(k) plans can be stated. The manual need not go into deep detail as to these issues. The point is to provide employees information that the company has guidelines on these matters. The employees may seek additional information from management.
5. The employee manual should not be a set of rules the employees must follow. However, some behavioral rules must be included such as compliance with anti-discrimination statutes and regulations. Specific sanctions for behavior that is antithetic to expected and accepted workplace behavior should be avoided. Setting forth detailed rules concerning specific sanctions for specific behavior can complicate unique situations. The manual can state the company expects loyalty from its employees, and behavior that shows disloyalty will be sufficient for discharge. Progressive discipline procedures are problematic, but if included, must be carefully worded to prevent interpretation that may not be in the company’s interests.
6. Affirmative statements such as “employees will be treated in a fair and equitable manner” cannot be contained in an employee manual. The company should avoid any affirmative, “feel good” statements. In cases of employment litigation, the employee manual will be the first document to be examined for possible failures of the company to follow its own published rules and procedures. Without careful drafting, the employment manual may even rise to the stature of a defacto employment contract. This possible eventuality may not be actually avoided but must be minimized to the greatest degree possible, yet allowing both the employees and management to achieve a harmonious working environment.
7. The manual should state the company’s position considering computer usage. Emails, along with all other contents of workplace computers, are the company’s property and may be examined at any time by company authorized representatives. The employees will be placed on notice that they should not expect privacy in the workplace concerning their use of company property.
8. When delivered, the employee will be required, by signature, to accept receipt and acknowledge the employee will comply with its provisions and any revisions.
9. In conclusion, an employment manual should be relatively brief. It is a product resulting from input by key management members and, if practicable, one or more employee representatives. The manual cannot be a rule book expected to cover all employee activities, just the most important ones. The manual must be crystal clear on the issue of “at will employment” and the company’s authority to discharge its employees for any lawful reason or no reason whatsoever. (This, of course, covers employees who are not subject to a collective bargaining agreement.
The foregoing is provided for informational purposes only and must not be construed or used as general legal advice. Laws vary from state to state, and no representations are intended or made as to the applicability or enforceability of any statements herein in any selected state.