Regardless of size, every business or nonprofit with employees needs to have certain policies in place. In this series, we’ll be discussing what you need to know when putting these policies into place. But first, which policies should be considered essential, whether you’re hiring your first employee or you’re dusting off an old employee handbook that desperately needs updating?
Alcohol, Drugs, and Other Contraband in the Workplace: Because you can be liable for your employees’ bad behavior on the job, your employment policies should also address the use of legal and illegal drugs and alcohol in the workplace. Consider how an employee’s impairment might affect their ability to safely perform their duties and responsibilities. And don’t assume that this is just for blue-collar workers. If your employees are “schmoozing” prospective customers, your policy needs to address the potential for drinking at a work-related event.
Anti-Harassment and Non-Discrimination: You want to clearly spell out the types of behavior that may constitute harassment or discrimination and remind employees that this type of behavior is not permitted. As an employer, you can be legally responsible for your employees’ bad behavior, especially if it appears that you allowed the behavior to continue or didn’t do anything to prevent the behavior. Related to this and your workplace safety policies, you should also consider addressing violence and bullying in the workplace.
Appearance: If your place of business requires a particular standard of appearance (or a dress code), you should have the standards set forth in writing. This is an area particularly ripe for claims of discrimination, especially if some employees are allowed to bend the rules or if some employees perceive that certain “unwritten” rules are applied to them but not others. You should have sound business reasons for the requirements you set forth in an appearance policy.
Confidentiality and Conflicts of Interest: If you have confidential information, whether it belongs to the business or third parties like customers and clients, you should consider having your employees sign a confidentiality agreement. Even if you don’t use a formal agreement, you may want to address in your employment policies what types of information your employees are expected to keep confidential. You may also need to address potential conflicts of interest which can arise in a wide-variety of scenarios (i.e. outside employment, personal relationships with clients, customers, or vendors, industry-specific obligations, etc.)
Data Security and Privacy: As data breaches become increasingly common, it’s critical to address how you keep company data safe. What do you expect your employees to date to keep customer information, financial data, and other confidential information secure? Your policy should not only address keeping company devices secure, but also the use of personal devices and email accounts to perform work.
Disciplinary Action: Regardless of your hiring process, some employees simply won’t work out. Whether they are not a good fit with your organization’s culture or their performance just isn’t up to your expectations, your policies need to address how disciplinary action will be handled. How and when does your organization conduct performance reviews? What happens if an employee violates your company’s policies? By having (and following) a written policy, you can help protect your organization from claims of wrongful termination.
Email, Internet, and Social Media: With almost everyone in our modern economy having access to the internet 24/7 (often in their pockets on mobile devices), your policies have to address the use of company email for personal reasons or on personal devices, how employees might use (or misuse) the internet while browsing during work time, and even to what extent your organization might monitor what an employee does on social media. These policies need to balance business needs (especially around data security and consumer privacy) with your employees’ privacy rights.
Employment-at-Will: Your employment policies or handbook should consistently emphasize that employment with your organization is “at-will.” This simply means that either the organization or the employee can terminate the employment relationship at any time. Be careful about statements in your employee handbook that suggest the handbook is a binding contract or agreement because this negates the idea of at-will employment.
Employment Classifications: Depending on the size of your organization, you may have a variety of internal classifications for employees. However, from a legal perspective, we’re discussing two big categories: full-time vs. part-time (which may determine which employment laws and benefits are applicable) and exempt vs. non-exempt (which determines whether an employee is entitled to overtime).
Time and Attendance: If you have non-exempt employees, then it is incredibly important that you are keeping an accurate record of their hours worked. The law generally puts the burden of record-keeping on the employer, and it is all too easy for a disgruntled (sometimes former) employee to claim unpaid wages and/or overtime. You also want to let employees know what is expected of them regarding attendance and punctuality, who to contact if they cannot make it to work, and how your organization handles various types of time-off or leave (i.e. paid time off, sick leave, voting leave, family and medical leave, holidays, etc.)
Note: It’s common to refer to non-exempt employees as hourly employees, but remember, overtime is so much more than salary vs. hourly.
Work From Home (Telecommuting): In this day and age, working from home is likely to become part of our new normal. Even if employees only work from home for part of the work week, doing so can implicate many of your other employment policies. Any work from home policy needs to address accurate timekeeping for hours worked, productivity requirements, information security (especially if your employees might have confidential information lying around at home), appearance expectations if your employees are using web-conferencing, etc. In your work from home policy, you should also remind employees about their obligations to keep company data on company-owned devices or in company-owned systems. You don’t to want to lose an employee only to learn that critical company information is not in your possession because it’s on their personal laptop.
Workplace Safety: Address potential safety concerns up front. You want to be make it clear that work-related injuries should be reported immediately. And consider whether your business is subject to any specific industry requirements related to workplace safety. Requirements here will obviously vary based on the type of business you run and the activities your employees are expected to be engaged in.
Just like you need a great team of employees to build your business or nonprofit organization, you also need a great legal team to minimize the legal risks that come with managing staff. If you have questions about your employment policies and procedures: