Advice for updating and
modernizing your firm's
BY MARY KATE SHERIDAN
Contrary to what your firm's associates may believe, their employee handbooks are not enormous paper weights or liners for their bottom desk drawers. Indeed, a handbook should provide employees with an overview of significant policies affecting benefits, firm procedures, anti-discrimination and more.
Equally important to what is inside the employee handbook is what your firm doesn't include. Omissions based on careful analysis can be part of a well-constructed manual. A dated handbook, however, could result in confusion, inconsistent practices across the firm and increased vulnerability to certain legal actions.
With constantly changing laws and evolving management practices, it's time to take a closer look at your firm's employee handbook and give it a makeover. Modernizing both the presentation of the handbook and the actual policies within will provide greater clarity to your employees and better protect the firm.
WHEN ARE UPDATES NECESSARY?
Periodic handbook updates are a must for any law firm. But how often should a firm review and revise its policies? "There's really no litmus test in terms of a particular number of months. ... It's largely based on what's going on in employment law," said Gregory Hare, shareholder at Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart, PC.
Firms should remain up-to-date on changes in employment law and assess whether any affect existing policies or merit a new policy. Failure to do so may result in a greater likelihood of employee allegations against the firm and higher risk of governmental agencies investigating the firm's practices, said Hare. Address relevant new laws immediately, rather than waiting for a designated update period. "If the law has become effective, you can't wait," said Michael Cohen, Partner at Duane Morris LLP. Administrators should also be attuned to modern workplace trends including advances in technology, evolving work habits and innovative benefit options and how they factor in to the firm's policies.
Pay Attention to Pagination
If paper handbooks remain your firm's go-to format, numbers will be an important part of your revision process the numbers on the bottom of each page, that is. While a digital handbook may use tools like linking to cross reference, a hard copy book will require page references. "Good handbooks typically will cross reference other policies," said Michael Cohen, Partner at Duane Morris LLP. But if the pagination is off, the handbook may look sloppy, he said. Not to mention, faulty pagination can lead to employee confusion.
Whether you plan to reprint the entire guide with each update, provide hard copy addenda, or follow some other solution, don't overlook the book's pagination. A small detail can go a long way.
AN EMPLOYEE E-HANDBOOK
Speaking of modern work practices, it may be time to replace those bound employee handbooks with a digital version. After all, most of your employees probably ditched paper for e-readers long ago.
If the handbook is available through the firm's intranet, employees can access it at anytime from anywhere, which is particularly beneficial for firms with multiple offices or telecommuting employees. With an electronic version, administrators can conveniently make changes and immediately notify employees without having to reprint and distribute actual books. And firms may implement electronic programs to verify that an employee has read the manual or at least has received it. "The benefit of having these types of documents and training materials stored electronically is it reduces space, it reduces clutter, and hopefully … will create a more reliable and retrievable record of training and a more retrievable record of personnel files," said Hare. "Paper files can easily go missing."
Just because you go electronic doesn't mean you have to abandon paper handbooks, though. Dellafay Chafin, Society for Human Resource Management HR Disciplines Panelist, suggests that firms provide a hard copy to all new employees and offer an identical version on the firm's intranet. Of course, if you continue to distribute hard copy handbooks, make sure you furnish hard copy updates each time you revise the electronic version.
ROLL OUT REVISIONS
Making policy changes is just the first step in updating your firm's employee handbook; administrators also must convey the changes to attorneys and staff. "HR can't sit back and supply the practice changes just to leadership and assume that leadership is going to pass that on," said Chafin.
In fact, firms may be required to notify employees of certain policy revisions. "In many states, changes in wages and benefits and payment structures must be communicated to employees or otherwise they may be subject to challenge or may be subject to invalidity," said Hare.
Firms may also offer training on their updated employment policies. Cohen recommends that firms train on specific policies and their implications in lieu of general handbook trainings, which can be dry.
MODERNIZE YOUR POLICIES
As you roll up your sleeves and dig in to your firm's policy handbook, don't just focus on revising the guidelines you already have. Evaluate how new legal developments and modern trends affect your firm's policies and practices. Some topics that administrators may examine as they update a firm's handbook include:
If your idea of a social media policy is to restrict every kind of social networking, it's time to rethink your strategy.
"There was a day when employers believed they could control their employees' social media activities," said Hare.
"But those controls are withering away as a result of various rulings by the National Labor Relations Board and various courts."
According to the National Labor Relations Board's (NLRB) fact sheet "The NLRB and Social Media," "the National Labor Relations Act protects the rights of employees
to act together to address conditions at work, with or without a union. This protection extends to certain work-related conversations conducted on social media, such as
Facebook and Twitter." The fact sheet further indicates that in recent years, the agency has investigated multiple employers in connection with their social media policies and disciplinary actions concerning employees' social media use. Given these developments, firms should proceed carefully when drafting social media policies to avoid illegal restrictions on their employees. Social media is a modern reality, however, and firms may still wish to include certain guidelines. Firms should seek advice from counsel with expertise in this area to make sure their social media policies are acceptable.
It's not just cyberspace that firms need to think about when drafting policies they also need to look closely at the workspace. "The office is becoming a concept that is not quite as necessary as it once was," said Cohen.
With the rise in portable electronic devices and Internet connectivity, employees may be working from virtually anywhere at any time. Whether employees are telecommuting from their homes, working while traveling, or billing hours from a cafe or hotel room, the traditional office workspace is long gone. And your firm needs to prepare for potential consequences, such as breaches of confidentiality or loss of equipment, to name a few.
For example, confidential information may be compromised when attorneys engage in conversations or review sensitive information while they are in public or traveling on planes, trains and other modes of public transportation. Firms need to address issues like confidentiality "with a recognition that our offices are no longer just in our offices," said Cohen.
Some of your employees' offices literally may not be in your firm's physical space if you offer a telecommuting option. And the likelihood is that even if you don't have a formal telecommuting policy, many of your attorneys bill hours from home at night or over weekends. Working outside of the office is certainly common nowadays, and a firm must decide whether to define its telecommuting position in the handbook.
According to Hare, it may be more effective to address the issue in employees' job descriptions than to include a formal telecommuting policy in the handbook. Physical presence may be a critical part of some positions and less significant for others.
"Very often it's a topic that's not easily applied across the board," said Hare. "In other words, it's the kind of thing where the employer should probably retain its discretion to apply it on a case-by-case basis."
Tackling the Complexity of Parental Leave Policies
Parents in the workplace may not be a new development at your firm, but keeping up with the laws surrounding parental leave can be challenging. Relying solely on the Family and Medical Leave Act for your firm's policy is likely insufficient. "Very often there might be a state law that is more specific than the Family and Medical Leave Act," said Gregory Hare, Shareholder at Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart, PC.
And these laws may vary among states, making it particularly difficult for employers with multiple offices. Firms may turn to expert counsel to wade through the various laws that affect their parental leave policy.
Another unique option for understanding the relevant laws is Ogletree Deakins' training program, O-D Comply: State Leave Laws. According to the firm's website, this program "provides an up to date compilation of state leave requirements and a concise guide to legal compliance along with the nuances of the applicable leave requirements in all 50 states and the District of Columbia."
The program aims to "help employers who are having trouble keeping up with the unique nuances that vary from state to state," said Hare.
Wage and Hour
With demanding clients, heavy caseloads and unpredictable deals, many law firms are not typical nine-to-five establishments. Given the rigorous work schedule, firms should pay special attention to their policies regarding nonexempt employees per the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
As specified in the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division's Fact sheet #23: overtime Pay Requirements of the FLSA, "Unless specifically exempted, employees covered by the act must receive overtime pay for hours worked in excess of 40 in a workweek at a rate not less than time and one-half their regular rates of pay."
Employees may feel internal or external pressure to work extra hours without reporting them, said Hare. But an employee's failure to report and therefore be properly compensated for overtime hours can become a serious issue for the firm.
A firm should protect itself by creating a clear-cut policy including such points as, "You are a nonexempt employee. The company will pay you for each and every hour you work. Nobody is authorized to tell you to work off the clock. If you do work off the clock you may be subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination," said Hare. Another significant issue is how the firm will handle breaks for nonexempt employees, said Cohen. Based on the applicable laws, firms may consider whether to offer breaks, how long breaks will be, whether breaks are paid or unpaid, and the procedure employees should follow if asked to work during an unpaid break, he said. Firms should ensure that they understand their duties under FLSA and consult with experienced counsel to develop a legitimate policy.
For many firms, suit-only dress codes are things of the past. But the popular business casual dress code can mean different things to different people, causing confusion. "I think it needs to be defined," said Chafin. If you don't explain the parameters of the business casual dress code, "you're not communicating with your employees, and that sets them up for failure," she said.
Another key consideration when defining dress codes is how the policy may affect transgender individuals, said Cohen. Firms should strive to create a gender-neutral dress code.
With the devastating effects of Hurricane sandy still lingering, disaster preparedness has been a hot topic recently. Whether it's catastrophic weather, terror threats, office fires or some other misfortune, your firm may consider developing disaster procedures so that employees understand the protocol for attendance, hours and pay, among other things.
While each firm's plan may differ, there is one factor that every firm should focus on: employee safety. "l always start with, ‘employee safety is our number one priority, and we never want to make any employee feel compelled to put their own safety in peril in attempting to get to work in hazardous conditions,'" said Hare.
Dusting off your employee handbook and introducing it to the year 2013 may be a lot of work. But giving your handbook a makeover may better protect your firm and more effectively reach employees.
About the Author
Mary Kate Sheridan is a writer, editor, blogger and attorney. She received her JD from Columbia Law School and her bachelor's degree in English
from Mary Washington College. Contact her at email@example.com.