Spring cleaning


Six ways to strengthen your company’s employee handbook

Employers should beware of potential promises made by superfluous language. Unnecessary purpose statements, rigid progressive discipline steps, and unrealistic commitments to provide training or a mutually enjoyable work environment should be avoided.

In addition to equal employment opportunity, harassment, discrimination, and retaliation should be addressed. Many employers imprudently limit their harassment policies to sexual harassment only. However, harassment policies should include prohibitions of harassment based on any protected category. The protected categories should be updated and also include sexual orientation, genetic information, and other state-specific categories.

A clear complaint procedure should be included in the policy that allows for multiple reporting avenues. For example, an employee should be able to go to their supervisor, HR, the owner, or call an anonymous hotline with complaints.

Similarly, employers should consider adding a separate policy to address bullying. Numerous states have passed workplace anti-bullying legislation.

Many employers have learned that including an at-will policy in the handbook (where allowed by law) reinforces the principle that employment may be terminated at any time for any lawful reason. Likewise, atwill policies should clarify that the handbook is not a contract, and employers may revise policies at their own discretion without prior notice.

Some employers have a progressive discipline policy that leads from verbal coaching to written warning to suspension to termination. Ensure your progressive disciplinary process is permissive but doesn’t bind you to any particular course of action. Your policy should lay out these possibilities, while making it clear management reserves the right to skip any steps of the progressive discipline process and employees remain at-will at all times. As an employer, make sure you treat your employees fairly and as consistently as possible when meting out discipline.

Due to unrelenting litigation under the Fair Labor Standards Act, timekeeping and overtime policies should specifically prohibit employees from working off the clock. Employees should be disciplined but still paid if they violate the policy and work off the clock. Especially in the hotel setting, when non-exempt employees may live on site and work at odd hours, they must be told repeatedly that all hours must be reported and tracked, even a 10-minute run to the front desk to check on a work-related issue. Policies should explain it’s the employee’s responsibility to report pay errors and how to do so.

A related consideration is a policy that addresses employees’ use of their own electronic devices – laptops, smartphones, and tablets – for work purposes. Policies should be crafted to address concerns regarding privacy, protection of confidential information, and working off the clock.

Employee acknowledgements evidence that employees have received the handbook and should be obtained each time the handbook is updated. The acknowledgement can be utilized to reiterate the at-will policy (again, where allowed by law) and shift responsibility to the employees to raise any questions or concerns about the handbook or company policy. Also note that violations of any company policy, even one not identified in the handbook, can lead to discipline, up to and including termination.

With the COVID pandemic in full swing, reviewing and revising sick leave and PTO policies is crucial. The policy should state when the employer will require medical documentation to support leave, how many absences may lead to termination, how to alert management when an employee will be late or absent, how PTO is accrued, etc. If an employer offers special COVID-related leave, that can be included in the handbook, as well.

Dedicating the time and resources to reviewing policies on an annual basis is well worth the investment. Handbooks that require a complete overhaul may be best handled by legal counsel so you can ensure you’re complying with local, state, and federal laws.

deepa n. subramanian

Deepa N. Subramanian, Esq., is a shareholder with Ogletree Deakins in the firm’s Atlanta office. She represents employers in all aspects of employment law, including employment litigation and counseling, and she advises and defends clients in federal and state employment-related lawsuits, including actions alleging discrimination, harassment, retaliation, violations of wage and hour law, and breach of contract.


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