Human Resources Q & A of the Day

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Question:
We recently made some changes to our handbook policies regarding benefits offered to employees and have a disclaimer stating, “The Company reserves the exclusive right to change or terminate any benefits or related policy at any time in accordance with applicable law.” Are we required to have employees sign a new acknowledgment of the handbook because of these recent changes?

Answer:
Yes, employees should be required to sign an acknowledgment noting that they are aware of any new policies or changes to existing policies.

Any new or changed policy should be provided to employees through the distribution of a new handbook accompanied by a brief memo directing the employees to the locations of the changes and requesting an updated acknowledgment signature. Without distributing and getting proof of receipt, the changed policies may be difficult to point to when correcting, disciplining, or terminating an employee. Most employers update their handbooks every one to two years. If there is a major change to an integral policy, that may be distributed separately and added to the handbook as an addendum until the next revision.

While not required, handbooks are a best practice in order to minimize risk. Clearly articulated and distributed handbooks can supplement a defense against many compliance issues such as, but not limited to, claims of sexual harassment, wrongful termination, and discrimination.

Handbooks are a general overview of policies and procedures. Key handbook policies include:

Definitions of commonly used terms.
Explanation of to whom the Handbook and its policies apply.
At-will employment policy.
Disclaimer that handbook is not a contract and the right to change policies without notice.
Antiharassment Policy.
Equal employment opportunity/discrimination/accommodation policies.
Leave of absence and family and medical leave policy (if applicable).
Maternity leave policy.
Drug-free workplace policy.
Standards of conduct.
Timekeeping and overtime.
Paid time off/vacation/sick leave policies.
Lastly, because a handbook is not legally mandatory, it may contain whatever information an employer wishes to impart to its employees. In addition, handbooks are traditionally separate from benefits summaries and other health and welfare plan materials, although the handbook may discuss employee status (full time, part-time, etc.) and may refer employees to benefit plan materials. Further, handbooks do not need to outline company job positions or titles; this can be maintained separately in the job descriptions.

As a best practice, we recommend reviewing new or modified policies with counsel prior to implementation.

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