The employee handbook is one of the most fundamentally difficult documents to draft and revise for a government entity. The handbook can entail dozens of pages and tens of thousands of words. The pure scope of such a document lends itself to contradictions, errors and mistakes. A person left to the unenviable task of creating or revising such a voluminous document must be able understand, catalogue and coordinate the many different policies. The solution to this problem lies in focusing on important two considerations concerning what exactly needs to be in an employee handbook.
First, an employee handbook does not need to contain every standard operating procedure for the workplace. In fact, sometimes less is really more when it comes to an employee handbook. Keep in mind that any policy that is included in an employee handbook needs to be updated when the policy changes. Any updates to an employee handbook require the employer to seek new signed acknowledgments from each employee for the handbook. It is entirely possible to have separate documents that explain the allocation of parking spots or the technical points of operating the time clock.
Second, your employee handbook can be turned against you. Most people are familiar with the disclaimer in a handbook that says “this handbook does not create a contract of employment and may be modified at any time.” Essentially, the disclaimer states that an employer is not obligated to follow any of the rules in the handbook and an employee remains an employee-at-will. It would seem that this constitutes the end of the story.
However, any smart plaintiff’s attorney knows variations from the policies in a handbook can potentially be used as evidence of discrimination or other unfavorable treatment. For instance, variations from a progressive discipline policy may not give rise to an independent lawsuit, but those variations will be presented as evidence that the employer was out to get a certain employee in a lawsuit concerning discrimination, retaliation or whistleblowing. The same can be said for claims the entity violated due process rights if your handbook includes an elaborate appeal process.
The end result is that a government employer must carefully consider the content and specificity of its employee handbook in the context of the workplace and in potential litigation.
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