Some laws require employers to provide certain information to employees via a written policy. Policies are also important for communicating company expectations and requirements. Here are 10 "must-have" policies for 2020.
#1: At-will employment
This statement reiterates that, absent certain exceptions such as an implied contract or public policy, either you or the employee can terminate the employment relationship at any time and for any reason, as long as the reason is a lawful one. It's a best practice to prominently display this statement in the beginning of your employee handbook (except in Montana, where at-will employment is not recognized). Reinforce at-will status in your handbook acknowledgment form as well.
A growing number of jurisdictions are requiring employers to maintain a written policy on preventing harassment in the workplace, including:
- California (all employers)
- District of Columbia (employers of tipped employees)
- Illinois (bars and restaurants effective January 1, 2020 and hotels and casinos effective July 1, 2020)
- Maine (all employers)
- Massachusetts (employers with six or more employees)
- New York (all employers)
- Oregon (effective October 1, 2020)
- Rhode Island (employers with 50 or more employees)
- Vermont (all employers)
- Washington (hotel, motel, retail, and security guard entities, as well as property service contractors)
Note: Maine and Massachusetts also require annual distribution of the policy.
Even if your jurisdiction doesn't require a written policy, it's a best practice to have one. In several additional jurisdictions, state and local agencies and/or case law recommends employers adopt a written anti-harassment policy. In general, the policy should:
- Clearly state that sexual (and other forms of) harassment and retaliation are prohibited.
- Define sexual (and other forms of) harassment and include examples of prohibited conduct.
- State that the policy applies to employees at every level of the organization, as well as to applicants, clients, customers, independent contractors, and other third parties.
- Address consequences for violating the policy.
- Provide clear procedures for employee complaints and offer multiple avenues to report potential violations.
- Encourage employees to report inappropriate conduct, without fear of reprisal, whether they're a victim or a witness.
- Assure employees that complaints will be taken seriously, and the company will conduct a prompt, impartial, and thorough investigation.
- Indicate that the company will maintain confidentiality to the extent possible.
- Encourage employees to respond to questions or participate in investigations.
- State that the company will take immediate and proportionate corrective action if it determines that a violation of the policy has occurred.
Keep in mind that your state or local law may require specific information to be included in the policy, such as how employees may file complaints with the state or local agency.
Federal, state, and local laws prohibit employers from discriminating against applicants and employees on the basis of certain protected characteristics, such as age, race, sex, and religion, among others. The list of protected characteristics and the list of covered individuals continues to grow as states and local jurisdictions enact new laws and government agencies and courts take new positions on existing laws. Some jurisdictions require a policy addressing discrimination. Even in the absence of a requirement, it's a best practice to have a policy that:
- Includes all characteristics protected under federal, state, and/or local laws.
- Addresses who is covered by the policy, such as applicants, employees, interns, and contractors (if applicable).
- Prohibits retaliation against employees for filing a complaint or participating in an investigation.
- Stresses that all employment decisions are based upon one's qualifications and capabilities to perform the essential functions of a particular job, without regard to protected characteristics.
- Governs all aspects of employment, including but not limited to hiring, selection, training, benefits, promotions, compensation, discipline, and termination.
- Urges employees to report all instances of discrimination and offers multiple avenues for them to do so.
- States that appropriate disciplinary action, up to and including immediate termination, will be taken against any employee who violates the policy.
#4: Employment classifications
It's a best practice to clearly define employment classifications, such as full-time, part-time, exempt or non-exempt since an employee's classification can dictate eligibility for benefits and overtime pay.
#5: Leave and time off benefits
These policies address company rules and procedures related to holidays, vacation, or leave required by law (such as sick leave, voting leave, family leave, and domestic violence leave). Some leave laws may require a written policy. In general, these policies should cover who is eligible, what reasons qualify for leave, how much leave will be granted, how the leave will accrue and carryover (if applicable), whether the leave is paid or unpaid, how much notice employees must give before taking leave, continuation of benefits during leave, the procedures for requesting leave, recordkeeping and employer notice requirements, and reinstatement at the end of the leave. Check your state and local law to ensure all leave requirements are included in your employee handbook.
#6: Meal and break periods
A policy on meal and break periods informs employees of the frequency and duration as well as any rules or restrictions related to break periods. Rest periods, lactation breaks, and meal periods must be provided in accordance with federal, state and local laws. Check back next week for our Tip of the Week on break periods.
#7: Timekeeping and pay
A timekeeping policy informs employees of the method for recording time worked and the importance of accurately recording their time. Among other the things, it should direct non-exempt employees to record all of the time they work and expressly prohibit off-the clock work (however, if they do perform off-the clock work, you must pay them for this time). Require non-exempt employees to confirm their work hours at the end of each pay period and inform them that they should report any errors in their time record immediately. A policy on paydays should let employees know the frequency of paydays, the methods available for receiving pay, and any special procedures for when a payday falls on a holiday or when an employee is absent from work.
#8: Safety and health
These policies describe the company's safety and emergency procedures and require employees to report work-related injuries immediately. Additionally, some regulations under the Occupational Safety and Health Act require employers to have specific policies and programs in place if certain workplace hazards exist (such as a hazard communication program if certain chemicals are present in the workplace) as well as guidelines and requirements for reporting workplace injuries.
#9: Employee conduct, attendance, and punctuality
Attendance policies make it clear that employees must be ready to work at their scheduled start time each day and provide procedures for informing the company of an unscheduled absence or late arrival. It's also a best practice to have policies on standards of conduct, drug and alcohol abuse, disciplinary action, confidentiality, conflicts of interest, and workplace violence.
Pay particular attention to your drug and alcohol policy in light of the evolving landscape regarding marijuana. Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia currently permit medical marijuana, and 11 states and the District of Columbia also permit recreational marijuana use. While none of these laws require employers to allow employees to use, possess, or be impaired by marijuana during work hours or in the workplace, some states have employment protections for employees who use marijuana outside of work. With this in mind, check your state and local law and work closely with legal counsel to review your policy and determine your rights and responsibilities.
#10: Reasonable accommodations
Under certain laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers must provide reasonable accommodations to qualified applicants and employees with a disability, or with sincerely held religious beliefs and practices, unless doing so would cause undue hardship. Some states have similar requirements that apply to smaller employers, and some states and local jurisdictions have laws that require accommodations in additional circumstances, such as when an employee has a pregnancy-related condition. Additionally, some of these laws require employers to have a written policy on reasonable accommodations, and it's a best practice to have a policy even if it isn't required.
When drafting and reviewing your employee handbook, make sure your policies comply with all applicable federal, state, and local laws and are consistent with current best practices.