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Office handbook: danger in saying too much or too little

While most offices have an employee handbook, few realize the responsibilities and even dangers it creates.

A handbook ensures that both employer and employee understand the full picture of the employment, says Beth De Lima, SPHR-CA, of HRM Consulting, a human resource management consulting company in San Diego, CA. It tells what the office expects of the employee in terms of behavior, and it tells what the employee can expect of the office in terms of salary, benefits, and so on.

Where the danger comes in is saying too much or too little. Here De Lima lists the essential provisions along with the cautions to take in setting out the details.

Yes, I’ve read this

The first necessity is a signed acknowledgement that the staffer has received the book and has a responsibility to read it, understand it, and follow it. And so nobody can claim ignorance, put in the name of the contact person for questions.

That needs to be repeated every time the book is updated.

Most offices stop short with that, De Lima says. They require employees to know the book but don’t require the same of management.

In her own company’s work, she says, “We see many supervisors who haven’t read it in 10 years or have never read it.” And violations occur as a result. “The managers aren’t deliberately not following the policies,”  De Lima says. “They just don’t pay attention to them.”

Because a handbook creates two-way responsibility, she says, either side can hold the other to it. Suppose it says the office does performance appraisals every year when in fact they haven’t been done for three years. Now there’s room for argument of wrongful discharge because that policy wasn’t followed.

At-will employment

Another necessity is a statement that anybody can be terminated with or without cause.

The caution here is to make sure the rest of the handbook doesn’t negate that, De Lima says. That can happen if the book also lays out a progressive discipline procedure. Someone who is fired could claim the office was required to go through that process.

This is how I get paid

Put in a section on wages, and here De Lima’s advice is to cover every possible aspect of ,“How do I get paid?” and, “When do I get paid?”

Along with that, lay out the overtime requirements. And there needs to be a provision that overtime has to be approved and that anyone who works overtime without approval “is subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination.”

Approved or not, overtime has to be paid for, so that provision “is the only way to stop people from working unauthorized hours and demanding pay,” De Lima says.

These are my benefits

Next is the here’s-what-I-get section.

List all the insurance coverages. List vacation, sick leave, personal paid time, and holidays. List the retirement benefits.

Then to make things absolutely clear, list the perks the office provides. If there’s free parking or a gym membership, put that in.

Also tell when people qualify for each benefit, perhaps that vacation kicks in after six months of employment or that only full-time employees can qualify for some benefit. Make that clear so nobody can claim to have been promised something the office doesn’t provide.

This is for my safety

The physical safety measures the office has in place also need to be explained.

One item is the procedure for responding to violence, whether from an employee, a patient, or from an outsider.

Cover too the building security and whatever safety practices the office follows, perhaps that anybody who works after a certain hour can ask for an escort to the car.

These laws will protect me

Employment laws also need to be covered – EEOC requirements, the ADA, family and medical leave, Uniformed Services provisions, and so on.

But along with those, De Lima says, set out the complaint procedure to follow when someone experiences or witnesses or has knowledge of a violation.

Here’s how I’ll be rated

Tell when reviews are held, what items are covered in the reviews, and how performance is evaluated.

Here’s how we all have to behave

Another essential is employee conduct.

Start with the attendance and tardiness requirements, and from there go to the use of the Internet, computers, copiers, and other equipment, including the limits on personal use.

Cover every requirement the office sets out – cell phone use in the office, dress, grooming, and so on.

Many items such as patient confidentiality will be particular to the office. But there may also be requirements such as that no one can talk with the media without permission or that no one can take pictures of the office without some type of permission.

This section will change and expand over time, De Lima says, because in most cases an office doesn’t have a requirement until it encounters a problem.

These are my working hours

Outline the working hours, and include meals and breaks. Also tell how the office keeps track of time and whether staff have to fill out time cards.

This is how I quit

Lay out the procedure for giving resignations – the amount of notice the office requires and whether the resignation has to be in writing.

Also in this section, tell what benefits such as COBRA coverage employees are entitled to when they quit and when they are terminated.

And along with that, explain the policy on giving job references.

Yes, we can change our mind

Finally, never let a handbook get written in stone.

Include a statement that the office has the right to change the policies at any time.









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