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Phia Group Media


Updating the Employee Handbook in Unprecedented Times

By Philip Qualo, J.D.
 

In general, employers should review and revise their employee handbooks at least annually to account for changes in local, state, and federal laws and workplace safety requirements. As employers begin to focus on reviewing their employee handbooks in preparation for a… hopefully better… 2021, many are pondering how to update their handbooks to adequately respond to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and continuing racial tensions sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Although employers have generally been quick to adopt and enforce policies addressing COVID-19-and diversity related issues, the rapidly changing guidance and dramatic shift in cultural perspectives has also necessitated swift revisions as best practices and requirements continue to change from day to day. In finalizing our own employee handbook for the upcoming year, we can share two important tips employers may want consider in reviewing and updating their employee handbooks in these challenging times.
 

Tip #1: Limit the Handbook to Static COVID-19 Language Where Possible

As updating an employee handbook multiple times within a fiscal year can be an administratively burdensome task, a best practice is to ensure all policies included or updated in the handbook are relevant, or static, for the duration of the applicable fiscal year. This has been simple in most years, however, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government passed a series of comprehensive laws with rapidly approaching expiration dates aimed at protecting American workers by regulating group health plans and providing for new leave paid entitlements, such as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). In addition to FFCRA, state and local guidance and laws continue to be updated at an unpredictable frequency that often necessitates a quick and temporary change to employment policies changes in order to comply work safety work requirements. 

In order to avoid the challenge of updating and re-releasing multiple times throughout these unprecedented times, it may be helpful to limit specific references to COVID-19. We chose to use terms such as “Public Health Emergency” or “Pandemic” where possible. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that life is unpredictable. Now that we have collectively experienced and continue to endure this pandemic, including language in an employee handbook referencing an employer’s responsibility to contain a public health emergency or pandemic could apply to other critical situations that pose a threat to future safety.

For policies with an approaching expiration date, or that are likely to change frequently based on changing guidance, it may be helpful to generally refer to them in the employee handbook and detail them in a referenced platform or notice that can be updated with ease. For example, we use an intranet platform to house our most up to date COVID-19 policies which allows for quick enhancements and immediate notification to employees. Although any platform accessible to all employees would be appropriate, an employer should take the additional step of distributing, announcing, or where applicable, requiring sign-off for each and every change to document compliance with notification requirements.


Tip #2: Closely Review and Update Anti-Harassment, Nondiscrimination and Sexual Harassment Policies

In the “Black Lives Matter” and “MeToo” era, organizations are taking the extra step of ensuring all policies and employment practices reflect their organizations commitment to diversity inclusion. As such, we encourage employers pay special attention to their anti-harassment, non-discrimination, and sexual harassment policies to ensure proper reporting, investigation, and anti-retaliation protocols are documented and in place. These policies send a message to employees about expected behavior.  In the event of a claim against the organization, they also help to demonstrate that the organization takes its obligations seriously.  Social media policies are similarly becoming a focus of concern for many employers in this day and age, when a single unwise employee post or public statement can subject the organization to a litany of negative publicity to their places. As demonstrated by the increasingly popular wave of “Karen” videos that have gone viral in recent months, employers may want to consider establishing or updating their policies to clearly reflect the handling of employees involved in large scale publicity due to inflammatory behavior or comments that could shed a negative light on the employer.

We hope these tips are helpful and provide some insight on how to enhance your employee handbook in challenging times.