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Can your employee handbook help you safely terminate an employee?

If you ever need to terminate an employee, one of the best tools you can have is an employee handbook that sets out clear policies and is kept up-to-date with changes in employment laws, says Chris Lessard, a California attorney who specializes in HR issues.

Lessard, who is J.D. Solution Center Advisor to CEDR HR Solutions, says employee handbooks can protect medical practice employers in the termination context, “by creating clear policies and preventing problems prior to termination.”

It’s critically important to issue these handbooks to employees when they first start working, and have them sign and date them to show they have received them.

“If it’s not in writing, you can’t prove that it happened, or that you had the expectation, or that the employee knew the expectation,” he warns.

Components of a properly crafted handbook

A handbook that is properly crafted by an HR professional can help prevent litigation by a terminated employee and can also help you run your office with fewer problems, according to Lessard. It is a compilation of a practice’s policies, agreements and expectations of its employees and is compliant with federal, state, and local laws.

“It’s going to give you a lot of legal cover following the termination,” he says. “Having that handbook in place and some accompanying documents is critical to putting your best foot forward in saying, ‘I did everything I could as the employer. This (termination) is on the employee’s shoulders as to why they were terminated and I can prove that it was for legitimate business reasons and proper performance-related deficiencies.'”

A handbook should include:

  • the practice’s hours of operation,
  • when and how employees receive their vacation pay,
  • when and how they may be terminated, and
  • the obligations of the practice in the event an employee is terminated.

Lessard advises that written policies specific to certain employees and their duties should kept outside the employee handbook, as should agreements such as contracts for higher-level employees in your practice.

Is your handbook in need of an overhaul?

Warning signs of a poorly crafted handbook include:

  • Inheriting one from the previous owners of a practice and continuing to use it.
  • Cobbling it together from the Internet using suspect sources.
  • Failing to keep it updated.
  • Having language within it that is inappropriate or illegal.

Lessard says the worst policy to put into an employee handbook is one stating that employees agree to not discuss their wages with other employees. Such a policy is a violation of the National Labor Relations Act.

Other terrible policies that find their way into employee handbooks include phrases that the employee agrees to a certain policy, such as the employee agrees that after three write-ups for tardiness, he or she will be terminated immediately for a fourth instance. Lessard says such language implies that the employee has certain rights or remedies that must be followed before that person can be terminated.

Another bad handbook policy states that unauthorized overtime will not be paid. Lessard says such wording can be dangerous if an employee lodges a US Department of Labor wages and hours complaint following termination.

Other poor handbook policies include ones stating that two weeks’ notice will not be paid, or that employees must give two weeks’ notice if they are leaving. Such policies prevent a practice from exercising its right to terminate an employee at will.

A handbook should never state that pay deductions will be applied for tardiness. Such a policy invites an employee to initiate a wages and hours complaint.

Moving to handbook dos, Lessard says they should include a clear policy relating to the use of cellphones on the job, because cellphones can dramatically cut productivity. That said, a medical practice cannot require employees to lock their cellphones away or put them in a basket when they come in, because it’s not legal to do so.

Another good handbook policy addresses office romances, stating that employees who engage in them are fully consenting and are not being coerced into such involvement.

Finally, Lessard recommends that handbooks contain good, compliant leave of absence policies in the event that an employee needs to be hospitalized or take an extended absence for other valid reasons.

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