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Employee Manuals – Updating is the Best Defense

An employer’s best defense to ever increasing employment claims is an employee manual, and more importantly an up-to-date manual.  If your company does not have a manual or has not updated its manual in several years, your company could be at risk.  Kentucky does not require that an employer have an employee manual.  However, the main advantage to issuing such a document is to create expectations and boundaries that are clear and consistent for your workplace. A good employee handbook goes further than merely outlining policies and procedures that pertain to conduct and safety in the workplace, it promotes positive employee relations. As well, adopting an employee manual substantially reduces the legal risks that often arise – especially surrounding discrimination, harassment or termination.  Even in an at-will state, a manual gives an employer more leverage with agencies, commissions and state boards who regulate employment concerns. A strong employee manual coupled with proper documentation of employee offenses safeguards against a “he said, she said” situation when serious issues arise.

If you have an employee manual, you’re off to a good start. However, if it has been sitting on your shelf for years, or it’s only distributed to new employees and dusted off occasionally when problems occur – it is definitely time to review and update for your company’s protection. Here are some things to think about to assess where your manual stands. How does your business relate to its employees on a daily basis?  Are those practices reflected in the written policies? Have your policies evolved over time with the changes in employment law? Consider how you interact and apply your “business customs.” What you put into practice every day should be consistent with your legal responsibility as an employer and what is actually written in your employee manual.

Employment law is constantly changing. New legislation and regulations carve out exceptions and add new guidelines for employers to follow. To avoid the risks of non-compliance with labor laws, updates are necessary to keep your policy current and reflect the changes in the law.  For example, harassment policies are not just about sexual harassment – a good general anti-harassment policy has to be in place. It is important that you include all protected classes, and you need to know what is currently trending in order to make changes to your policy.  As well, policies need to be broad enough to give supervisors latitude and flexibility to make case by case decisions, while maintaining consistency, and incorporating the rights and protections necessary to keep everyone safe in your workplace, including the employer. This is easily illustrated within the context of policies that outline the terms of earned leave – a policy may cover general stipulations of employment such as how an employee accrues leave time, and if that earned time can be paid out upon retirement, termination or separation. These general terms of employment should all be reflected in your employee manual, whether you’re a company of five or five hundred.

Another essential personnel manual element is the employee reporting and grievance process. Giving an employee an avenue to express concerns, report alleged wrongs and correct behaviors is all part of creating fairness in the workplace. This important step can alleviate blame when you have an employee verses employee problem. Outlining how every employee has a fair and unbiased process to follow for grievances and putting that process to work for the company is one of the best assurances you can have for staying out of court. Having a policy that offers options for recourse substantially improves the chances of the company not being held liable for individual employee’s actions.

There is more to updating an employee manual, than correctly wording your policies. Check back on Friday to continue this discussion.

Jaron Blandford is a member of McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie & Kirkland, PLLC and is located in the firm’s Lexington office. Mr. Blandford focuses his practice on civil litigation with an emphasis in all areas of labor and employment law. He can be reached at jblandford@mmlk.com or (859) 231-8780.

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