We’ve been asking ourselves, does anyone have a relatively good employee handbook template for sale online? We gathered metrics from Google and Google Adwords, and it did not take long to find a $49.99 “customized” office manual. So, we grabbed a copy to see if it was, well, “decent.”
As you would hope and imagine, as HR experts, we try to keep abreast of the best practices for creating and maintaining employee handbooks. This means we constantly research and monitor multiple channels of information relevant to employment law and managing employees. We are always looking for better ways to serve the medical and dental HR community when it comes to employee policies and helping to solve HR problems.
We also look at what other HR professionals are saying and doing when it comes to various employment issues, and our attorneys and HR experts study the policies they write. Policies about Facebook, email, Protected Health Information, disabilities, wage and hour laws, maternity leave, harassment and discrimination, time off with or without pay, and about 150 other little details should all be properly and thoroughly addressed in every business’ employee handbook.
We use our knowledge as we create our own handbooks, and we point out flaws in existing handbooks for your benefit. If you have ever worked with us, you know that a common practice of ours is to invest our time in evaluating the current version of your office’s employee handbook. We do this so we can create context and understanding for you as to what policies are good and why some are dangerous. If your handbook is good, we tell you. If it needs work, we give specific examples of the things that are wrong or missing.
As you can imagine, by now we’ve reviewed thousands of books from all kinds of sources. A few are great, but many have problems. Serious problems that can be avoided. The problem with those problems, so to speak, is that in many cases, because a policy is poorly written or shouldn’t be in your book at all, they create chinks in your employer armor.
And that is how you should think of your employee handbook. It’s kind of like a shield—or, even better, a castle. It can literally protect you from lawsuits.
Why your handbook is your castle (Bear with me for a minute)
Metaphorically, the situation looks like this: One year, your castle walls are perfectly adequate. At least, you think your walls are fine, because they have never been tested. If someone attacks or considers attacking your kingdom, they quickly learn one of two things. Either your walls are more than adequate to repel their best effort, or your walls are not adequate, giving the attacker a good chance at victory. Even worse, your walls could be built on a weak foundation—and then the next thing you know, you have to go into damage control mode. All castle walls are not created equal.
The same is true of employee handbooks. All handbooks are not created equal, and what might seem to work well initially may not be sufficient or even legal the next time you need to rely on it. And in worst-case scenarios, your book, which was never good enough in the first place, catastrophically fails you. As a result, you end up having to defend or fight threats of litigation or even an actual lawsuit.
Something I often say when speaking to groups of doctors and practice managers: Templates and one-size-fits-all employee handbooks are just not up to the task of creating a good management environment and protecting your assets and sanity. When I ask, “How many people in here have either been in an employee lawsuit, have been threatened by one, or know another doctor who has been involved in one,” hands go up.
So, back to that template we were evaluating…
Here’s the first difference we found in our review of the $49.99 handbook: what “customization” means.
This gives our industry a really bad name. See, for the creators of the $49.99 book, “customization” means you get to insert your name and your state in the document. You also get to have it now—with no training or support on how to implement it. It’s rough and ready, and you get a Word version of the document. Seems like a great idea until you consider…
Customization for us means we need to gather about 20 points of information from you and then spend some time making sure your first draft complies with local, state, and federal laws based on your answers. We then need to take you through a second process, where we speak with you so we can customize for your practice’s culture and make your book reflect your wishes, while at the same time complying with all applicable rules. And we also need to train you on tools that will help you manage with less risk, and how specific handbook policies work in your state. Each of these steps is ESSENTIAL in helping to lower your legal risk—not to mention making your life as a business owner and/or manager far less stressful and more fulfilling.
Second difference: Would you rather get an A or a D-?
We grade the handbooks we evaluate based on certain criteria, which include:
- Does it do no harm?
- Does it comply with state and federal law?
- Does it provide key legal protections (a legal shield)?
- Is it industry-specific enough to actually help you?
- And, finally, as a management tool, will it pay for itself? Or is it likely to cost you money down the line?
With those questions in mind, we downloaded one of the most popular, Adwords-recommended employee handbook templates off the internet, and we graded it. It got a D-.
And the only reason it did not get an F was because it did not catch the printer on fire while I was printing it out. So, credit there.
What went wrong in the creation of this literary monsterpiece?
Here are a handful of the issues with the book:
- It tells employees they may not discuss their salaries, and literally threatens to fire them for discussing wages. This flat-out, no question about it, blatantly violates federal law (the National Labor Relations Act, or NLRA). No one likes to hear that, but it’s true. this policy is a gift to a disgruntled employee’s attorney.
- It misaddresses privacy in the workplace in a manner that would give you a cold chance in hell of prosecuting and recovering money from an embezzler, as it completely dis-empowers your practice from using evidence found on your own systems.
- There is no discussion of safeguarding Protected Health Information or maintaining clinical standards.
- It fails to properly address breaks and meal periods.
- And the coup de grace: It addresses both email and social media in a manner which has been singled out by federal agencies as the way NOT to address these issues. I’m not kidding—it literally gives these agencies cause to sue you on behalf of your employees.
I was stunned. No, seriously, stunned.
Here’s where it gets really upsetting.
A host of in-built legal problems aside, that’s not even the end of the story, because we’ve still got the aftermath to consider. Typically, after purchase, you would download this thing, have it available to you as an MS Word document, and then start to make your own changes to it, not knowing that there are another 20 key provisions missing, at least another 15 serious mistakes, and a limitless amount of damage you can do by making edits that seem like common sense but that will turn you into lawsuit bait faster than a lawyer can lick his chops.
The last thing you need is for someone to put you in harm’s way by representing that they are SELLING you a document designed to protect you, when in fact, they have not taken even a moment to research changes in employment law or keep the template up to date. No one is perfect, but to not even make a good faith attempt at keeping their product updated is simply not acceptable.
Did I mention that the $40,000 from the title of this piece would be likely to come out of your pocket, in the form of a legal settlement?
If you run a healthcare practice, we can help.
It’s not hard to start lowering your risks. Have your handbook reviewed and kept up to date by a qualified and competent HR expert. Do this on a yearly basis, and when you hear about changes in the law, ask that HR expert to explain how they affect you, and if your book should be amended. Then, see if there are any new employer posting requirements, or any new paperwork that must be handed out. By staying on top of this, you are not only staying compliant, you are also actively avoiding the types of employee upsets that lead to lawsuits and settlements.
Here at CEDR, we evaluate current handbooks and offer in-depth policy critiques to healthcare practices. See how here.