Update-January 6, 2010:  For information on how employee handbooks, and particularly safety plans, can contribute to lower insurance costs, see Lara Utter’s recent post in Iowa Biz.

There is no federal or Iowa law that requires an employer to have a handbook–but most of us do anyway.   While handbooks can be quite useful for communicating information and expectations to employees, a poorly drafted or conceived one can create more trouble than it solves.   Handbooks are often updated to comply with new laws and regulations, but seldom do employers review handbooks with the idea of removing information or making them simpler.  Sometimes, no one in the organization knows where a particular rule or policy came from.  It simply stays in the handbook year after year because…well, because it’s always been there.  

A good resolution for 2010 is to review your handbook with at least some of the following in mind:

1.  Just because another company had a particular rule, policy, or procedure does not mean your company should;

2.  Do you really want a detailed progressive discipline procedure? Often, the only time anyone reads this is after they have been disciplined or terminated, and it turns out it wasn’t followed;

3.  Make sure the "at-will" disclaimer is in a prominent place, but don’t let it lull into thinking you can safely terminate an employee for any reason or no reason at all;

4.  It is important to communicate that you are an equal opportunity employer and do not discriminate; but don’t try to paraphrase all the EEO laws in your handbook.  You might get it wrong, or make promises that get you in to trouble later (e.g., "we always accommodate employees with disabilities"). 

5.  Does your handbook adequately communicate your leave policies?  You must set forth clearly the employee’s rights and responsibilities under the Family and Medical Leave Act;

6.  Do you have a policy on social networking?  Do you need one?  What are you trying to accomplish with a social networking policy?

7.  Does your handbook comply with the National Labor Relations Act? This is commonly overlooked, because most private employers do not have unions.   However, the NLRA applies to employers regardless whether its employees are organized.   The following policies may potentially violate the NLRA if they are deemed to infringe on an employee’s rights to engage in protected, concerted activity:

  • prohibiting the use of e-mail for "non-business" communications;
  • prohibiting the wearing of pins or decals;
  • requiring management approval before posting information on bulletin boards;
  • statements to the effect that information about wages or compensation is strictly confidential and may not be disclosed to other employees;

8.  Does your handbook contain information about classifications under the Fair Labor Standards Act?  Are the classifications accurate?

9.  Does your handbook provide easy to understand information about who employees should talk to if they have a complaint about harassment?

10.  What is your policy concerning employer issued mobile phones and smart phones?  Do you allow for personal use? Do you expect employees to answer calls or e-mails after hours, and if so, are they compensated for that time?