Handbook Changes for the New Year

January 09, 2019
Inside HR
Read time: 5 mins

A key resource in your organization’s toolbox is your employee handbook. This critical communication tool sets the tone for the employment relationship. It helps employees know what you expect of them and what they can expect in return from the organization.

In spite of its importance, it’s quite easy for a handbook to find itself sitting on the shelf, gathering dust bunnies with an HR team that has the best intentions, but realistically not enough time to tackle a proper update.

As you resolve to make that proper handbook review in 2019, here are the topics you should consider updating or implementing:

Time Away from Work
There are several handbook topics that together address employer-provided benefits and employee responsibilities for when an employee misses work. Make sure all of these topics are addressed in a manner that complements (rather than contradicts) one another.

State that regular attendance and punctuality are essential to every position within your organization. Provide clear instructions for how an employee notifies you of his or her need to be late, absent, or leave early. Instruct employees to notify you if they think their absence should be protected by FMLA or another regulation.

Time-Off Benefits
Regardless of the type of time off you offer to employees (PTO or vacation/sick/personal), the level of detail covered in these policies helps you clarify appropriate usage of these valuable benefits. Your policy should include the basics such as eligibility, amount of time earned/accrued, when time can be used, increments of time off allowed, and details for requesting time off. It is also ideal to cover common questions such as:

  • Can time be carried over to the next anniversary or calendar year?
  • How is earned, but unused time handled at termination? How are negative time-off balances handled at termination?
  • At what point is unpaid time off allowed? Do all time-off benefits need to be exhausted before an employee uses unpaid time off?
  • Do time-off hours count towards hours worked for overtime purposes?

The answers to these questions may vary by state law, so be sure to double check what practices are permissible in your state.

Paid Sick Leave Requirements
As the paid sick leave movement sweeps across the U.S., these regulations have driven employers to evaluate their existing time-off benefit policies and determine whether a one-size-fits-all policy is practical for their business. If you are in a jurisdiction that requires paid sick leave, ensure you have a good understanding of the regulations and how those rules stack up against what you already offer your team.

Leaves of Absence
There are many scenarios under which employers may be required to provide protected leaves of absence to their employees. In addition to federal regulations such as the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), individual states typically have specific leave of absence rules as well. These are often related to topics such as jury duty, crime victim leave, emergency responder leave, parental or school visitation leave, or additional medical-related leaves (bone marrow and organ donation).

Each of these have rules about employee notice requirements, amounts of time off to be offered, and whether or not the time off should be paid. Assess which leaves of absence apply to your business, ensure your practices are compliant, and craft policies for each accordingly.

Keep in mind that even the required leaves of absence like FMLA or others mentioned above don’t cover every possible scenario in which an employee needs time off. It is best practice to include a general personal leave policy for your employees as well.

Workplace Conduct Rules and Expectations
In June 2018, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) offered employers much awaited direction on handbook rules. This updated guidance signaled that the NLRB will take a more employer-friendly stance in evaluating rules that could impact an employee’s right to engage in protected and concerted activity.

Since June, there’s very little case guidance providing specific examples, but it’s clear that the door is open for employers to reinstate expectations about civility, insubordination, recordings in the workplace, and other disruptive behavior that had previously been prohibited under the prior administration’s NLRB. Common sense should always prevail and remember, there hasn’t been a test case yet! See MRA’s previous article on this topic for more information.

#MeToo and respectful workplaces remain hot topics. If not reviewed in the last two years, don’t delay in updating your harassment policy. See MRA’s checklist for a great starting point. Remember, not all bad behavior at work constitutes harassment. Depending on your environment and culture, an anti-bullying policy may also be helpful to you.

Work Activity on Personal Devices
The Amazon effect isn’t just for retailers anymore. Employees expect easy, remote access to company systems, and they often handle work tasks on their personal smart phone. This creates a number of policy issues to consider and employers are increasingly asking for guidance on how to address personal device usage for work purposes.

Updating your electronic systems policy to discuss expectations about employee access to company electronic systems using an employee’s personal device has become best practice. This type of policy should include details about what (if any) security requirements exist for accessing company systems on a personal device, what happens if the device is lost or stolen, who owns the data, and what happens to the data when employment terminates. Another topic to address is how time will be compensated for nonexempt employees who perform work on personal devices after work hours.

Multi-State Employers
Employers with even just one employee in a state other than their headquarters location must consider the state requirements applicable to that remote employee. Best practice is to create state addendums for each state in which you have employees and address the topics that typically differ with each state, which are commonly EEO protected characteristics, wage and hour issues like pay at termination and overtime rules, leave of absence requirements, and paid sick leave rules.

Illinois Updates
2018 marked a significant year for employment law activity in Illinois. See MRA’s article on updates here and here.

At MRA we have resources to help you dig in to the topics listed here, including sample policies in our Resource Center and state-by-state law charts for multistate employers in our CCH Compliance Library. But if you find that you need an extra set of hands to tackle these 2019 updates, we are here to help!

Source: Peg Heinen, Manager, HR Handbooks, MRA - The Management Association