DEAR REWORKER: WHAT BELONGS IN THE EMPLOYEE HANDBOOK?

Dear ReWorker,
My company has an Employee Manual stating company policies on vacation, sick time, tardiness, overtime, absences, conduct, appearance, drug testing, etc. We do not, however, spell out company policy regarding the day-to-day operation of our business.
We would like to start issuing written warnings to employees that violate operational policies by being rude to customers, charging items to customers with bad credit, not returning items to vendors in a timely manner and breaking other rules. Can we issue written warnings to employees that violate policies not included in the manual, or does every policy have to be spelled out before we reprimand our employees?
Sincerely,
Pondering Policy
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Dear Pondering,
The short answer is yes, you can issue a warning even if the policy isn't included in the employee manual (or handbook).
It's worth discussing, however, what should be in the employee handbook to ensure that both employers and employees have a holistic document to use for different types of situations.
An employee handbook is a governing document for the company, which means it should include content that applies to everyone. While a concept such as "rudeness to customers" can be covered in the Code of Conduct section (employees shouldn't be rude to anyone, period), how items are returned to vendors only applies to the department that handles returns. Those types of policies are best left to individual departments and job descriptions. As long as your handbook is written properly, individual managers can come up with requirements for day-to-day operations, and write people up when necessary.
Companies are legally bound by their handbook, so make sure yours is both legally accurate and has policies that you're willing and able to defend in court. Make sure you avoid these common legal pitfalls.

Forgetting Local Law

Employment law is complex on the federal as well as the local level. For example, federal law governs whether or not someone is eligible for overtime pay (Fair Labor Standards Act, FLSA), how to handle employees and candidates with disabilities (Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA) and what qualifies as a legally protected leave of absence (Family Medical Leave Act, FMLA).
But there are also local laws that oversee the same areas. In Connecticut, for instance, non-exempt service workers are entitled to 40 hours of sick leave each year. Connecticut employers must offer at least that many hours, but can offer up to 80 hours if they prefer. They can even choose to extend the benefit to salaried exempt employees.

Accidentally Making a Contract

Many companies observe a 90-day probationary period after hiring a new employee, but what happens when the employee hits 91 days? Is that employee then "permanent"? You have to be careful with your wording here—unless you live in Montana, all workers are, by default, "at-will" employees, which means you can terminate them with or without reason whenever you want(as long as it isn't prohibited by law), and they can quit at any time (with or without notice) as well.
A handbook that states that an employee becomes "permanent" after a probationary period can negate that at-will status. The handbook is a binding contract, and if you're not deliberate with your wording throughout its entirety, you could wind up in a problematic situation.

Omitting Important Policies

Your handbook needs to include policies for vacations (how much you offer, how it's accrued or granted, whether it's paid out when someone leaves, etc), sickness (when are doctor's notes required, if ever), internal transfers, working from home, using company equipment and any other rules that have to be fair and consistent across the organization.
It's important to remember that handbooks don't have to cover every little thing, but the rules that are included must be accurate and carefully explained. Always have your handbook reviewed by an employment attorney, just to be safe.
With that said, don't feel any guilt about writing someone up for violating a tenant of their specific job, even if it's not listed in the employee handbook. Your duty as a manager is to ensure workers do their job well, so feel free to give them a warning when it's appropriate.
Sincerely,

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