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2016 employee handbookIt is of utmost importance to update your employee handbook regularly. Worker protection legislation is passing in staggering numbers, technology is ever-changing and workforce demographics are expanding. You need to make sure that your employee handbook reflects all of those changes and accurately protects your employees and company. It is best to treat handbooks as dynamic entities that need to be updated constantly, or at the very least, annually.

An employee handbook should serve as the guidebook to how an employer would like an employee to behave, and how they would like employees to treat each other. It can also offer insight into a company’s culture and values. Handbooks do not need to contain every governing law pertaining to a company, and the language should be loose enough to cover the HR department’s back. The handbook should also contain a disclaimer that it is not an employment contract.

These are the top updates to add to your employee handbook this year.

  1. LGBT Rights

Following the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that required states to permit and recognize same-sex marriages, companies must provide same-sex married couples the same health and retirement benefits that they offer to other wedded people. Although there may more flexibility with health insurance requirements if the employer is self-insured, the risk of receiving discrimination claims would still remain. Laws are still evolving regarding LGBT employment rights. Over 20 states recently expanded their anti-discrimination protections to include transgender individuals. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) established that gender identity is included within Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As an example, an eye clinic in Lakeland, FL, had to pay $150,000 to resolve a federal lawsuit alleging sex discrimination against a transgender individual who was let go.

Since there is often controversy and debate around these issues, some employers use their handbooks to express their objective to treat all employees equally and fairly regardless of their marital status, sexual identity or sexual orientation. Employers can add statements to an existing provision declaring that the organization does not discriminate unlawfully on the basis of race, religion, color, national origin, age, disability, political affiliation and the like. It is well-advised to put extra effort in surrounding these sensitive areas.


  1. Smoking and Marijuana Use

HR no longer only has to worry about laying out clear rules regarding cigarette smoking at work. The rise of e-cigarettes and changing legislation regarding legalizing medical or recreational marijuana use requires increasingly nuanced policies. If your handbook does not currently address the use of e-cigs specifically, you will want to revise them to reflect their increased popularity. The handbook should restrict where tobacco products can be used, such as within the office or 30 feet from the doors.

Marijuana used for both medical and recreational purposes can be handled like any other drug. Employers can ban consumption while at work, and in most states, can dictate that employees not be under the influence of illegal drugs, alcohol or legal drugs that impair them significantly while on the job.

We are currently living in a time where state laws regarding marijuana use are changing rapidly, and there are few court interpretations of them to reference. Some states, such as Arizona, Delaware and Minnesota, prohibit the firing of employees for a positive marijuana test if that employee holds a valid medical marijuana card. Further, some states limit punishment for employees who test positively for drug tests but have no evidence of work-related impairment. Employers will want to keep a close eye on state laws that apply to them and have their handbooks reflect any changes.


  1. Leave Benefits

States continue to change their legislation regarding unpaid and paid leave benefits, but many companies have decided that it is in their best interests to offer additional leave. Several large companies, many in the high tech sector, have published their generous parental leave policies within the last year--many with equal time off for mothers and fathers. Other new benefits being offered by employers include paid jury duty leave, domestic violence-related leave and blood, tissue or organ donor leave.

These benefits have been determined to promote employee well-being and increase morale and productivity, while also boosting the public image of the company’s brand. Employers often use this portion of their handbooks to make declarative statements about their company philosophy and interest in the well-being of their employees.


  1. Data Privacy and Social Media Use

There is increasing ambiguity around what devices are used for personal and work related tasks, especially related to the use of tablets and smartphones. Many employees conduct business on these personal devices and also use them to participate in their personal social media accounts. Your employee handbook should clearly state that employees have no right to privacy while accessing social media at work or on company-owned equipment.

Because the use of these devices are so ubiquitous, companies are faced with data protection issues. Handbooks should mention that employees are prohibited from disclosing any propriety information (with the exception of speech protected by the National Labor Relations Act). You should also ensure that workers are clearly told not to download apps on to devices that have employer information and to avoid clicking links from unsolicited emails. It should also instruct that when an employee leaves an organization that their devices be wiped clean of employer data. Finally, you should advise against leaving company-owned devices in cars and have clear guidelines on reporting stolen devices immediately.


  1. Payroll and Wages

Two pay related issues frequently trip employers up and should be addressed specifically in the handbook to minimize liability—improper deductions from worker’s pay and unauthorized overtime. Many employers are anxiously awaiting to see what happens with the proposed changes to the federal overtime regulations since it will undoubtedly affect how handbooks are written surrounding this issue. It is common for workers to work more hours in a pay period than originally planned, and the federal government clearly outlines that if employees qualify for overtime, they must be paid for the additional work that they do outside their normal hours.  Companies should be advised to include a section in their handbook that states that employees may not work overtime unless they receive advance permission from their employer. You may also include that managers will reprimand any employee who works unapproved overtime. You will want to further clarify that nonexempt employees should not conduct business or access company email outside of work hours.

If a company makes an incorrect deduction from an employee’s pay, it can correct the mistake through the payment of overtime wages. If the mistake is corrected, the employer might qualify for a U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) safe harbor provision protecting it from government penalties. The handbook should outline practices that the company engages in regarding pay, mentioning that it will make good-faith efforts to correct mistakes when alerted of them.

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