Employers are not required to publish employee handbooks with all the company human resources policies. Rather, it is up to each employer to decide whether and when to create one. Typically, a company will consider publishing a handbook by the time it has 25 or more employees. But regardless of whether your organization has a formal handbook, there are certain HR policies that are required by law and others that would be extremely wise to have in written form.
If a policy is well developed and clearly written, it will enhance communications with employees, clarify expectations, and assist with consistency of application. These are all important factors in creating a desirable culture for your company and minimizing legal risk.
So what are some of the policies that every employer should consider? To begin with, there are several states (including California) that require employers to have a written policy prohibiting sexual harassment. And the law goes so far as to include some of the required content of the policy, along with information about how and when it must be distributed to employees.
From a legal perspective, it is important to comply with this sexual harassment law. But even in those states where a written sexual harassment policy is not required, it is a good idea to have one anyway. If it is written and distributed properly, the policy helps set expectations for professional behavior at work and provides a process for the company to learn about conduct that may not be consistent with your conduct standards. In the end, it will help you reduce legal risk.
It’s also a good idea to have a written “at will” policy (if you claim to be an “at will” employer). Without a written policy to that effect, it can be difficult to prove “at will” employment status if you are sued for wrongful termination. If you are going to write an “at will” policy, be sure that the definition of “at will employment” is very clear and unambiguous. There are thousands of court cases that resulted from incomplete or inaccurate definitions.
Another policy you’ll want to consider is an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) policy. This is where you state your commitment not to discriminate against applicants, employees, and former employees in the terms and conditions of employment on the basis of being a member of a legally protected group (i.e., race, sex, age, disability, etc.). A good EEO policy also includes a prohibition against harassment based on any protected category. And you would also include information about how an employee can report any suspected discrimination or harassment to the company. Finally, it is an appropriate place to include your company’s commitment to providing reasonable accommodations to employees and applicants under the Americans with Disabilities Act. (To understand how valuable the wording and tone of these policies can be, be sure to read EEO Policies: Walking the Razor’s Edge.)
It’s a good idea to have a policy that defines the employer’s workweek and workday (for everyone or for each job category). That’s because the workweek and workday help determine an employer’s obligations to pay overtime wages.
With regard to termination of employment, it’s wise to have a policy that, at the very least, reiterates that the company can terminate employment with or without cause or notice (similar to the “at will” policy) and provides for paying the employee any wages that are due. Termination policies usually include more but generally shouldn’t include any less.
You may also want to consider a policy that defines the various employee classifications. What is a full-time employee, part-time employee, or temporary employee? What is a contractor? Is a worker’s status determined by the number of hours he or she is regularly scheduled to work? How is a temporary employee different from an agency temporary? Once your definitions are in place, you can use them to determine which classifications are eligible for different kinds of leaves of absence, employee benefits, bonuses, stock options, etc.
If you give employees time off for vacation or sick time, those arrangements should be put in writing (either in a policy or in each employee’s offer letter). After you employ enough people, you’ll probably find that having one policy is easier to administer. And putting it in writing eliminates some of the risk of employees claiming they were promised something different.
Policies addressing confidentiality and the protection of proprietary and trade secret information are always a good idea. If an employee compromised your products or services by taking or disclosing information inappropriately, your policy would be a part of your legal proof that you own the information and considered it to be confidential. It also will help prove that you took steps to maintain its confidential and proprietary nature.
The size and location of your workforce and the industry you are in will determine the laws to which you are subject. And some of those laws may require written policies about a particular subject even in the absence of a handbook. So it is very important that you work with your legal counsel and your human resources department to identify those laws. Once you have that information, you can decide which other policies it makes good sense to have so that your employees are aware of your expectations and you are working efficiently to minimize risk.
Barrie Gross is former Vice President and Senior Corporate Counsel (Employment Law) for an international Fortune 1000 company and is a regular contributor to AllBusiness.com. She is the founder of Barrie Gross Consulting, a human resources training and consulting firm dedicated to assisting companies to manage and develop their human capital. Visit www.barriegrossconsulting.com to learn more about Barrie and the services BGC provides.
Note: The information here does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as legal advice. If you have a legal issue or wish to obtain legal advice, you should consult an attorney in your area concerning your particular situation and facts. Nothing presented on this site or in this article establishes or should be construed as establishing an attorney-client or confidential relationship between you and Barrie Gross. This article is provided only as general information, which may or may not reflect the most current legal developments or be complete.