By Bruce Loren & Associates
Employers seem to have all kinds of reasons why they don’t have an employee manual: “No one reads it anyway, they just shove it in a drawer; I can download stuff from the Internet whenever I need it; we’re a small company, we don’t need to write down the rules. It would make everyone feel awkward.”
But the truth be known, there are many reasons – legal and practical – why employers need an employee manual. Manuals can prevent issues involving overtime, safety, probation, scheduling, absenteeism, paid time off, company vehicles, computers, cell phones, privacy, harassment, discipline, parental leave and many others.
Here are a few examples:
Cell Phone Policy
If the company provides a cell phone to employees, it is company property. However, the company needs to make clear what the limits are on the employees’ usage of the phone. For example, your policy should clearly state that the employee has no expectation of privacy in the phone records, voicemail, texts, downloads, uploads or e-mail. Also, if you do not intend for your employees to use the phone for personal use, your policy should clearly state that the phone is for business use only (except in an emergency). How will you handle out-of-plan usage? These are just a few issues that arise with company cell phones.
Your safety policy should be specifically tailored to the type of business you are in. Roofing, electrical contracting, swimming pool contracting, demolition – each type of work has unique requirements, materials, equipment and hazards. Have you provided instructions for employees to report machinery in need of repair? Have you told the roofers that the company requires them to be on the ground before they use cell phones? Creating your policy also helps you to think about safety in general. How often will you train your employees? Will you outsource the training?
This is one of the hardest policies to get used to if you have never had one before. Bottom line: If you fire someone for a perfectly good reason – “everyone knows that Smith showed up on the job at least once a week late, drunk and without his tools” – and you don’t have any documentation, you may have problems down the road. Reason, logic and common sense are, unfortunately, not that helpful after Smith claims to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that he was fired because you discriminated against him. You will need a paper trail. A discipline policy can be simple: first violation of most company policies is an oral warning, and you should note the personnel file; second violation is a written warning; third violation is termination. Of course, violations of certain company policies (involving safety or theft, for example) may result in immediate termination, but the manual is the only way for employees to know what the company policies are in the first place.
Discrimination and Harassment Reporting Policies
All companies should have and enforce written policies forbidding harassment and discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, age, disability or veteran status. However, the supervisors, owners and HR department cannot address an issue if they do not know that the issue exists. For example, if an employee with a disability feels as though he is being discriminated against, he should be able to look to the policy for instructions on who he can report this to. The company should have a policy for investigating and responding to the complaint.
These examples alone should have you thinking about your current policies, whether they are clear and effective, and whether you need a new or revised employee manual. But let’s discuss these other reasons.
“No one reads it anyway; they just shove it in a drawer.”
The employee manual protects your company. When employees claim that they “didn’t know” that the company could read text messages or “didn’t know” not to wear an iPod on a job site, you can rely on the manual. When you distribute the manual, give employees time on the clock to review it. Distribute an acknowledgment, asking each employee to affirm that he/she has received, read and understands the manual. Keep a signed acknowledgment in each employee’s personnel file. It would be nice if all of your employees really read the manual, but they may not. That should not prevent you from protecting your business.
“I can download stuff from the Internet whenever I need it.”
Sure, and everything you get from the Internet is accurate, up to date, applicable to your company and applicable in the state of Florida. With Internet-based policies, you may accidentally commit your company to something when you don’t need to. For example, employers with less than 50 employees are not required to provide leave under the federal Family Medical Leave Act. But the leave policy that you download may reference this law, and you may end up allowing employees to take time off when you are not required to and subjecting yourself to penalties for non-compliance. A customized manual, crafted with the assistance of counsel, will include details specific to your business.
“We’re a small company; we don’t need to write down the rules. It would make everyone feel awkward.”
A small company can have a family feeling, and formal rules can distance the owner from the employees. However, a manual does not have to strip away that feeling. Instead, you can make employees feel like they are even more of an important part of the company. Include longtime employees in the process. Ask for input. Remind employees of situations where written policies would have helped, such as the time when someone used a company cell phone to text his American Idol votes 10,000 times (during working hours, while on top of a roof) and, after being fired, claimed that the company fired him for discriminatory reasons. Written cell phone, safety, discipline and discrimination reporting policies could have helped to quickly put an end to that claim and saved the company money. In turn, more money could have been invested back into the company and used for raises, bonuses and benefits.
Your employees will benefit from the clarity that the manual provides. Your company will benefit from the protection that the manual provides.
The West Palm Beach law firm of Bruce Loren & Associates specializes in the representation of businesses and management in the construction industry. Cara F. Barrick, Esq., SPHR, focuses her practice on employment issues that are unique to the construction industry.