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  • Writer's pictureTaryn M

New Year, New Employee Handbook?

Updated: Nov 21, 2021

At the beginning of a new year, it is a good time for employers to review their handbooks and ensure policies are updated with the latest employment and labor law developments. Particularly, the COVID-19 pandemic may have prompted changes to employers' remote-work, paid-leave, and other policies.

Whether you are starting from scratch to create an employee handbook or embarking on a total refresh effort, there are important steps you can take to ensure your company has an up-to-date manual that employees will use. Employee handbooks are a cornerstone of communication for HR departments and the first line of defense against potential litigation. So, first and foremost, the handbook must document the company’s compliance with federal and state laws and regulations.

These compliance provisions are among the most important to include:

  • An equal employment opportunity statement.

  • Anti-harassment and nondiscrimination policies.

  • A Family and Medical Leave Act/medical leaves of absence policy.

  • An Americans with Disabilities Act policy.

  • A religious accommodation policy.

  • A background-check policy.

  • A contractual disclaimer and at-will policy/statement.

  • An employee acknowledgment form.

Recommended 2021 Employee Handbook Updates

Remote-Work Rules

With remote work becoming a new widespread practice in 2020, employers should update handbooks and policies to reflect this new practice and establish well-thought-out policies for remote workers into the coming year. State and local stay-at-home orders and other efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus led many workplaces to move their operations online in 2020. Some businesses decided to make work-from-home options available for the longer term.

Employers that have already or plan to resume in-person operations may need to revise their policies on providing reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act and other anti-discrimination laws.

Not all jobs can be done from home, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has said that allowing an employee to work from home could be a reasonable accommodation if an employee's disability prevents him or her from successfully performing the job onsite unless the accommodation would cause undue hardship for the business.

Anti-Discrimination Policies

Do you have at least 15 employees? Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits businesses with at least 15 employees from discriminating against workers based on protected characteristics with respect to terms and conditions of employment, including hiring, firing, laying off, training, or disciplining.

Protected characteristics include color, national origin, race, religion, and sex. In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court held that "sex" discrimination under Title VII includes sexual orientation and gender identity.

Leave Mandates

Managing leaves of absence is much more complicated today than it was even a year ago.

In 2020, the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) provided paid leave for certain workers who had COVID-19 or whose children's schools, or childcare providers were closed due to the pandemic. Although FFCRA's paid-leave requirements expired at the end of 2020, a new coronavirus relief package extended the refundable employer payroll tax credit for paid sick and family leave through March 2021.

Likewise, some states, have more-expansive leave mandates that will remain in effect for at least part of 2021. Some states, such as New York, passed permanent paid-leave laws in addition to temporary pandemic-related laws.

Although you may choose not to include temporary requirements in their handbooks, you should consider developing policies and procedures for managing compliance while the rules remain effective.

Health and Safety Requirements

Employers should review guidelines from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and state and local agencies that are meant to keep workers healthy and safe during the pandemic.

OSHA's existing standards cover pandemic-related safety risks. Specifically, all employers must provide a work environment that is "free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm."

Employers should note that states may have more rigorous standards. At least 14 states have adopted comprehensive COVID-19 worker safety protections, and some cities also have passed pandemic-related workplace safety ordinances. Employers should note they may see an increase in claims of retaliation from employees who raise health and safety concerns, therefore your compliance and reporting policies should be strong.

Drug-Testing Programs

In the last election, voters in five states approved marijuana laws that will take effect in 2021. Thirty-five states have now approved medical marijuana use, and 15 approved recreational use.

Employers need to be aware of how each applicable statute impacts the workplace. Although no state requires employers to tolerate on-the-job cannabis use or intoxication, many states protect registered medical marijuana patients from employment discrimination. If you have not already done so I would recommend that employers review their drug-testing policies to ensure compliance with evolving laws in this area.

Looking Ahead

The future is uncertain for many employers considering the ongoing pandemic and a new presidential administration.

Under President-elect Joe Biden, the new administration may consider raising the federal minimum wage and the salary threshold for workers who are exempt from overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act and favor more highly towards employees’ rights.

General Employee Handbook Tips

Lastly, well written and developed Employee Handbooks should be an extension of the company’s culture. Although you should focus on compliance and legal language, you should also find ways to showcase your employer brand. Consider adding pictures, quotes, timelines, infographics, tips for promotions, and testimonials from influential leaders.

Employers should consider having their policies audited regularly for legal compliance.

Additional topics to include in your Employee Handbook:

  • About “Us” and welcome letter from the President/CEO/GM

  • Mission, Vision, Values

  • Exempt/nonexempt schedules, breaks, and time-tracking

  • Payroll procedures

  • A benefits overview (I recommend having this in a separate handbook)

  • Standards of conduct

  • A progressive discipline policy

  • Security and equipment-usage policies (including social media)

  • A confidentiality policy

  • Other company-specific policies and information as needed

Are you considering updating your Employee Handbook, or starting from scratch?

Contact Taryn M Consulting for assistance at

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