Employee handbooks: What to know

 Jane Pribek, The Daily Record Newswire

No Crocs at work.

That’s what I recall from skimming the lengthy employee manual recently on my first day at a new job.

I had to smile. Did they really think I would be even remotely tempted to wear those to work?

I don’t remember much else from the handbook, which is pretty typical.

Although it’s important to have employees sign off on receiving the manual their first day, it’s unrealistic to expect employees to immediately know the rules backward and forward, said attorney Sally Piefer.

Rather, the employee handbook is a reference that staff members consult as-needed, according to Piefer, who spends much of her workdays drafting them. She recently helped revise the handbook at her firm, The Schroeder Group SC, Attorneys at Law.

Even at small firms, employee handbooks are beneficial, lawyer Brenda Haskins said. When she first opened Haskins Law LLC, Haskins employed just one paralegal. They started with no handbook because the two had a high level of trust.

But serving on a nonprofit board, Haskins said she saw how problematic things could become when there was an issue with an employee and no manual to consult. She created one for her firm soon afterward.

The handbook sets expectations, Haskins said, so she doesn’t have to micromanage. Drafting the guidelines also made her think deeply, she said, about how some tasks were done. For example, she decided to change the timing for payroll as a result of working through tasks for the handbook.

She now reviews the handbook annually.

Piefer said that’s ideal, but most businesses tend to do so less frequently.

Tapping a consultant to help is wise, she said, as she’s seen many lousy employee handbooks that clients get from the Internet. If you can’t afford to hire someone to write your manual, Piefer said, at least have an expert review what you draft.

Particularly for law firms, she said, employee handbooks should contain provisions on confidentiality, employment at-will, performance expectations and benefits. Time and leave policies also are important, especially if the Family and Medical Leave Act and its state law counterpart do not apply.

Piefer recommended that you don’t characterize the initial period of employment as “probationary,” because it gives the perception that once that time has passed an employee only can be fired for cause. And, from a style perspective, she said, the employee handbook should sound friendly.

Haskins said she does not have a policy on social media, cellphone use or texting. But she imagines the day might come when those will be necessary.

Blogging and social media policies are particularly hot topics in employee manuals, Piefer said. Social media policies, in particular, have come under fire from the National Labor Relations Board.

“The NLRB has taken the position that if your social media or confidentiality policies are too broad,” she said, “they may interfere with the employees’ rights to engage in concerted activity.”

BMW, for example, had a “courtesy” policy: Be nice to co-workers, suppliers and customers. Sounds great at first blush, right? But the NLRB said it’s too broad because it might stifle complaints about management and working conditions.

I wonder if the NLRB has taken a position on Crocs, as well.

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Jane Pribek is a former family law attorney and regular Wisconsin Law Journal contributor. She can be reached at jpribek@bellsouth.net.

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