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Every employer with any number of employees should have written employee policies, delineated in a readily-available employee handbook.
Written policies serve to clarify expectations and reduce the company’s exposure. In many cases, policies must comply with statutory requirements from the state and federal government. I recommend that handbooks be signed by employees upon hiring, to demonstrate that the employee has read, acknowledges, and understands the policies of the company.
There are a number of policies that should be included in an employee handbook:
Under federal law, employers are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, veteran’s status, pregnancy, HIV/AIDs, disabilities, and genetic information. New York State law, on top of federal law, prohibits discrimination based on marital status, familial status, sexual orientation, military status, domestic violence status, arrest and conviction status.
The employee handbook shouldn’t cite the entire law, but it should address the fact that the company is an Equal Opportunity Employer (EOE) that fully abides by all federal and state laws. The handbook can then refer to the federal and state non-discrimination laws.
Further, New York City has additional anti-discrimination laws that set an even-higher bar. For instance, employers cannot make a hiring, firing or promotional decision based on a person’s protected status.
2. No Harassment
Both Federal and New York laws prohibit harassment in the workplace. Sexual harassment from a supervisor might include “quid pro quo” harassment, meaning sexual favors in return for promotion or other benefits. Employers must avoid creating a hostile work environment.
3. Workplace Safety
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, commonly referred to as OSHA, regulates workplace safety for employers and business, which protects commerce. Employees must be provided with a place of employment free from recognized hazards that could cause death or serious physical harm.
4. Workplace Violence
Employee handbooks should state that the company has a zero-tolerance policy for workplace violence.
5. Right to Alter, Amend or Change
Caution should also be exercised to avoid creating implied contract claims. Employers should keep policy statements general and always include an explicit statement reserving the company’s right to alter, amend or change the handbook policy at any time and for any reason. If an employee signs, and the right to alter, amend or change isn’t included, the handbook can become set in stone for an employee’s entire term of employment.
6. At-Will Employment
New York is an “at-will employment” state. Unless a collective bargaining agreement or employment contract is in place, an employer can generally terminate an employee or an employment relationship at any time for any reason, or for no reason, as long as it’s not a discriminatory reason. The courts generally weigh in favor of this at-will standard; another reason to be careful of creating an employment contract via the handbook.
7. Media Relations
Because media relations are a relatively new, and still gray, area, they are regularly litigated.
Are employees allowed to post anything and everything on Facebook or Instagram from your company, or is access limited?
Also consider including terms addressing the following:
- A table of contents
- The mission and values of the company
- A list of supplied resources, and a list of resources not supplied
- Employee expectations
- Workplace security
- Regulation process of internal communications
- Chain of command and reporting
- Basic company policies and procedures
- Payment practices
- Attendance and paid or unpaid time off
- Employee benefits
- Company equipment and property usage guidelines
- Travel, entertainment and business expenses
There are always numerous workplace regulations, and just as many employee expectations. The company’s employee handbook, drafted according to the particular needs of a specific workplace, and in accordance with municipal, state, and federal laws, is necessary to properly address these matters. It will greatly assist in avoiding misunderstandings and many protracted problems that may otherwise arise.
Contact Pierce & Kwok LLP with any employment-related questions or comments.