When you Google “employee handbook,” the first non-advertisement returned is “Writing Employee Handbooks,” published by the U.S. Small Business Administration. The post lists a handful of topics that are typically included in employee handbooks and aptly reminds employers that:

A well-written handbook sets forth your expectations for your employees, and describes what they can expect from your company. It also should describe your legal obligations as an employer, and your employee’s rights.

The second hit is from October 2015, published by the Society for Human Resource Management (known to HR professionals as SHRM). This post provides SHRM members with a sample handbook that bears the disclaimer “all new employee handbooks should be reviewed by your legal counsel for compliance…”

I can’t argue with the SBA or SHRM on these points. The employee handbook is often the first place employees go for guidance, especially when they are disgruntled. And, the employee handbook is often the first thing I ask to see when a client receives a charge of discrimination or even just has a question about how to handle an employee situation. A current, healthy handbook is a valuable asset that, when used properly, can save an employer headaches, time and money.

Our firm’s employment attorneys recommend that clients have their initial employee handbook drafted by legal counsel, working alongside the company’s human resources professionals. We also recommend that clients have their handbooks reviewed annually to ensure continued compliance with the ever-changing law and to consider whether changes within the business environment may warrant changes to the policies contained in the handbook.

Even for employers who have healthy handbooks and who do not undertake regular reviews, from time to time, major changes in the law may warrant immediate handbook updates. For example, in 2008 the Department of Labor issued significant final changes to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) which warranted employers subject to the Act to make immediate changes to the handbook descriptions of employee rights under the Act. Similarly, 2008 amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act also warranted handbook updates for many employers. 

Several recent changes in the law may impact your business, and in turn, necessitate changes to your employee handbook. Two key examples include:

  • After the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on same sex marriage last summer, it is now illegal to deny same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual-couples under employee benefit plans and the FMLA. It is also, in many jurisdictions, illegal to discriminate against a person based on his or her sexual orientation or sexual presentation. Also, to the extent that your handbook discusses spouses or partners in terms of male-female or husband-wife, those provisions should be updated.
  • As of Jan. 11, 2016, employers with federal contracts must comply with the OFCCP’s Pay Transparency Rule. This prohibits covered contractors from having policies and practices that prevent applicants and employees from freely discussing their pay. Covered businesses must notify employees of the Pay Transparency Rule and include a statement about the Rule in any existing employee handbook.

Other changes in the laws surrounding employee organizing under the National Labor Relations Act, the rights of nursing mothers, employee cell-phones and texting, and the legal use of marijuana may also warrant a handbook health-check and update sooner than later. BGD’s employment lawyers can help ensure employer compliance with new laws, rules and standards. Being proactive in the development and upkeep of your company’s employee handbook can also help reduce employer liability.