Next time you’re driving on the highway, take a look at the road signs. Not for what they say, but how they say it. Are they new or worn? Easy to read or difficult to see? Straightforward or confusing?
If you drive down I-95 around Fairfield and Westport, you’ll notice something different lately. The signs are fresh, easy to see and clear. In fact, when you start getting down to Norwalk or so, you’ll be struck by how worn out the signs are in that area of the state and how unreadable some are. (A terrific article in the New York Times from August 2007 discusses the nationwide change in signs to a new "Clearview" font, if you’re curious.)
I was thinking about this after I had a discussion with a client recently about the benefits of reviewing their employee handbook. "It’s fine; we’ve had it for 15 years without an issue," they said. But it turns out it wasn’t "fine", the handbook lacked some of newer or updated provisions that have been drafted to comport with changes in the law. Indeed, the handbook was a confusing hodge-podge of policies that were, at times, unclear, outdated, and confusing.
If your company’s handbook is as old as some of the road signs out there, here are four areas to re-examine.
- At-Will Disclaimers – This disclaimer will notify employees that they are at-will and that this handbook does not change that relationship. Disclaimers should be displayed prominently and be sufficiently specific. The disclaimers should also be able to draw attention to a reasonable person. Lastly, the disclaimer should explicitly reserve the right of employers to change the policies at any time, with or without prior notice.
- Anti-Harassment Policies - The Supreme Court decisions of nearly a decade ago told employers two important lessons: a well drafted policy and well-drafted complaint procedures to deal with harassment issues will go a long way to reducing an employer’s liability for many types of sexual harassment. Indeed, the EEOC has suggested that employee handbooks are an excellent vehicle for notifying employees about such policies. Thus, a review of the anti-harassment policies and procedures is a good idea to make sure they take advantage of this important defense provided by the Supreme Court.
- Vacation/PTO Policies – Some employers have re-evaluated their vacation packages and other days off to avoid some of the hassles and abuses that have taken place at their companies. Some have moved to a strict "Paid Time Off", which looks less at the reasons for taking time off, and more at the overall attendance of the employee in general. Some have also added a provision to make it clear that employees earn only a pro-rata share of the vacation time during each month, to prevent employees who leave at the beginning of the calendar year to be paid for unused vacation time for the entire year.
- Electronic Communications – With the rise of the Internet and web-based e-mail, computer access and misuse have only multiplied in the last decade. Moreover, employees who use e-mail and instant messaging are prone to using it informally. A comprehensive policy to address what conduct is appropriate will give employees some guidance into the do’s and don’ts of e-mail and IM. With Connecticut’s passage of an Electronic Monitoring Act, employees must also be notified if employers are tracking their computer systems, which may involve keystroke reviews or internet firewall tracking.
Handbooks may not be as glamorous as addressing the "hot" issues of the day, but updating a handbook will pay dividends for years to come. With clearly marked signs for employees on how to proceed, it’s less likely that one will get lost on the way.