What Should Be Included in Your Employee Handbook?

Both large and small companies can benefit from providing their workers with employee handbooks. These texts help employers answer key questions and clearly document that the same standards and rules govern their interactions with everyone. After all, no one wants to work for an employer who grants special privileges or benefits to some workers and not to others.

Employee handbooks also let employers set forth all their behavioral standards and procedural rules in a manner that can help them limit future liabilities — should anyone ever try to sue them for wrongful termination or acting in a discriminatory manner.

Before reviewing some crucial sections that many businesses like to include in their employee manuals, here’s a quick look at some of the topics that most workers want to see addressed.

Employees often search for information about key standards and office procedures

  • Be sure to outline your behavioral standards, attendance rules, office attire and the level of respect required for all relationships. Most employees are eager to learn how you view tardiness and what you consider acceptable clothing. Likewise, new workers want to learn about your conduct standards — and if your office has a “zero tolerance” policy toward all forms of sexual harassment and discrimination;
  • Always provide clear information about pay grades, qualifications for receiving medical insurance, pay periods and all forms of employee benefits. Workers usually start to relax more once they’re told how often they’ll be paid and the exact size of their payroll deductions. Likewise, it’s important to tell employees when (and if) they may be considered qualified for healthcare insurance;
  • Always state how often employee evaluations are conducted and the best ways workers can try to position themselves for future raises and promotions;
  • Be sure to note any individual or family leave policy provisions that your company honors. Always have your Houston employment law attorney read over this information for you, to be sure it fully complies with all current federal, state and local laws; and
  • Describe your most crucial emergency and safety procedures. Always tell your workers how they should evacuate from the office during extreme weather events, fires and even possible shooting incidents. Each new worker should be shown the proper way to exit the building on their first day on the job – and be shown where fire extinguishers and first aid kits are kept.

While these are just a small sampling of the general topics most employees want to see covered, they should help remind you of many other important subjects that you should cover in your employee handbooks.

The following list is compromised of some of the most commonly used sections in employee handbooks.

Key headings or sections most employers include in their employee handbooks

  • A “Preface” section. You may want to provide a general history of the company here, along with information about the founding members of the business. You can also note who currently heads up various office branches. The company’s key values and goals for the future are also often stated here. If you like, you can also add a brief congratulations to each new employee for being hired;
  • Material explaining all basic pay arrangements, promotions and current employee benefits. You can describe any 401k or stock options in this section, as well as the various types of retirement benefits. Overtime pay policies should also be covered;
  • A section that describes “at-will” employment versus jobs offered under contract;
  • Standards for employee behavior. Be sure to address the need for regular attendance; rules governing personal cell phone use during the work day – and any restrictions on using work computers for private purposes. (Ask your attorney if you need to obtain written permission from all employees to monitor their computer usage);
  • Formal leave policies. In this section, you’ll need to list all paid office holidays, how employees should handle vacation and sick leave, personal days off, family medical leave and time off to honor current military service commitments;
  • Employee termination policies. Be sure to note that these can vary, depending on; if an employee is considered an “at-will” worker who can be dismissed rather informally or if the person was hired under a formal contract.
  • Confidentiality policies. Be sure to clearly state what information and trade secrets the company considers confidential and trade secret. Ideally, all employees would signed a confidentiality and non-disclosure agreement.

Should you wish to review a large number of sections that different employers have included in their employee handbooks, consider reading 53 Key Sections of an Employee Handbook (and Other Helpful Tips).”

The Texas Workforce Commission also has a number of policies and a form of Employee Handbook available for free at https://twc.texas.gov/news/efte/table_of_contents-az.html. However, choosing the right sections for any employee handbook often requires a keen understanding of employment law and many complex human resources issues.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys for help in drafting your new or updated employee handbook. We can provide you with the proper legal terminology required to meet your company’s unique needs.

Key Drafting Points for a Texas Employment Contract

Although Texas employers hire many workers on an “at-will” basis to make it easier to dismiss them (for reasons that doesn’t violate governing statutes), they also still provide employment contracts to others. After all, a well-drafted employment contract helps employers clearly establish what’s expected of their employees and makes it easier to protect proprietary information when workers leave.

If your company prefers to negotiate employment contracts with highly skilled employees, try to first meet with a Houston employment law attorney so that all of your most important needs and interests can be protected during the hiring process. And always be sure to communicate carefully with prospective employees since it’s easy to accidentally convey contract terms you may not have intended.

Before reviewing some of the important terms that should be included in most Texas employment contracts, it’s wise to note how some employment contract terms can become binding when set forth outside of contracts.

Ways employers may convey certain employment terms to job applicants or new hires 

Always carefully review the following ways that your company may be granting certain rights you didn’t intend to include in your formal employment contacts.

  • Through verbal agreements. Only allow a limited number of interviewers and other hiring staff to discuss key employment terms that may or may not be set forth in writing;
  • Statements made in offer letters. Always reread these before sending them out to make sure they do not contradict what’s in your written employment contract;
  • Provisions set forth in your employee handbook. (You should periodically ask your attorneys to review this material – to be sure it’s still current regarding new laws and recent court decisions);
  • All emails and faxes sent to prospective employees or new hires;
  • Statements made on workplace job notice boards.

While this list isn’t intended to be comprehensive, it should remind you that all written materials and formal conversations with applicants and new hires must be conducted carefully.

Here’s a look at some the terms you must properly address in your contracts.

Written employment contracts should always address these key terms and conditions

  • All core duties and responsibilities of the employee. It’s often wise to also note when the employee’s performance will be evaluated. For example, after the first 30 to 60 days – and then at other stated intervals;
  • Pay rate. This should be carefully discussed while making the initial offer and then documented in the employment contract;
  • All employee benefits, such as healthcare and stock options, should be listed and at least briefly explained;
  • Work locations and hours. If rotating shifts are required or if you strictly forbid working from home – you should set forth all these relevant restrictions;
  • Clear information indicating how employee disciplinary actions will normally be handled;
  • Reimbursement of approved expenses. If you do not cover any major expenses, you must state this very clearly;
  • How employee terminations are handled under different circumstances. This is a good place to possibly offer some type of severance pay if provided with two weeks’ notice (or some other time period you may prefer). You can then state that no general severance packages will be offered to those who fail to provide advance notice of their departure;
  • Dispute resolution terms. If you and the employee later have a dispute regarding the employment terms set forth in the contract, state whether you require the use of a specific form of dispute resolution — before any litigation can be pursued;
  • A reasonable covenant not to compete when employees are leaving. You should also include some type of clear statement that the departing employee must not disclose any trade secrets to others upon leaving.
  • A confidentially agreement. All employees who have any access to any company trade secrets, proprietary information or information the company deems to be of a sensitive or confidential nature must sign a confidentiality agreement.

If any of these terms are especially important to your company, give serious thought to asking all employees to not only sign their employment contracts – but to also initial certain paragraphs – clearly indicating that they were asked if they had special concerns or questions about those topics.

Please get in touch with one of our Murray Lobb attorneys once you’re ready to draft any employment contracts for new employees. We are also available to help you modify any of these contracts when various employment conditions change.

Brief Overview of Texas and Federal Whistleblower Laws

All employers must respectfully interact with employees who report alleged wrongdoings in the workplace. Often referred to as “whistleblowers,” these individuals are trying to correct illegal practices or behaviors they believe are harmful to many. Although some whistleblowers may have improper motives, you always ignore them at your own peril – especially since there are Texas and federal laws designed to protect them under certain circumstances.

The following information about whistleblower laws and related activities can help you better understand why an employer must obtain timely legal advice from a Houston business law attorney once any employee threatens to file this type of complaint.

The Texas Whistleblower Act

This statute is found in Sections 554.001 (and following) of the Texas Government Code. It only provides protection against employer retaliation for public employees – not private ones. The law expressly forbids public employers from suspending, terminating or otherwise imposing adverse personnel actions employees who report alleged legal violations by the employer or co-workers.

However, the complaining party – who must report the alleged wrongdoings to the appropriate law enforcement authority – must undergo (exhaust) all employer grievance or appeals processes before being allowed to sue the employer. Under the Texas statute, all whistleblower lawsuits must be filed within 90 days of the reported wrongdoing.

Damages may include obtaining a legal injunction against the employer – as well as receipt of all back pay owed if the employee was terminated (or demoted) in a retaliatory move. Successful whistleblowers (who meet all statutory requirements), are also entitled to receive full reinstatement, all fringe benefits owed, full seniority rights, actual damages, reasonable attorney fees, court costs and a set maximum of possible other compensatory damages.

Furthermore, a supervisor found to have violated the complaining employee’s rights under this Texas statute (Section 554.008) can be forced to pay up to a $15,000 civil fine.

While the burden of proof is on the whistleblower, the possible penalties can be formidable.

Federal laws often relied upon by various whistleblowers

  • The Sarbanes-Oxley Act (passed shortly after all the illegal Enron activities). It mainly addresses the penalties available in the wake of fraudulent accounting practices.
  • The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
  • OSHA violations. Many construction workers and other employees file “whistleblower” complaints based on these Occupational Safety and Health Administration statutes and regulations.
  • Various Department of Energy laws and statutes.
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) laws and regulations.
  • Federal airline regulations.
  • The False Claims Act (as recently updated).
  • The Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act of 2009.
  • Hazardous waste regulations.
  • The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — and other government statutes related to the provision and receipt of proper medical care.

While this list isn’t intended to be comprehensive, it provides a general overview of the types of statutes and regulations often referenced in many whistleblower complaints.

The following information reviews the most common types of illegal retaliation some employers take upon learning that a whistleblower complaint has been filed.

Forbidden, retaliatory actions taken by some employers

  • Job termination. Far too many employers look for “clever” ways to fire complaining employees once they learn a whistleblower complaint may be filed.
  • Demotion. An aggrieved employee may be called in and told that there have been long-standing complaints about his/her performance – requiring demotion to a lower position with considerably lower pay.
  • Thinly disguised harassment on the job.
  • Retaliatory discipline. This may include the placement of highly negative performance reviews in an employee’s file – making it much harder for the workers to receive any future promotions or favorable recommendations upon leaving the job.
  • Blacklisting. Some employers will “discreetly” contact their peers throughout the same industry, purposefully designating the specific, complaining employee in hopes of preventing that person from every landing another job in that same field.

Two high-profile whistleblower events help explain how such actions often unfold

One of the best ways to gain a stronger understanding of whistleblower activities is to read all you can about how former Enron employee Sherron Watkins reported her concerns about her employer. You may also want to learn more about all the late FBI agent W. Mark Felt (“Deep Throat”) did to expose President Richard Nixon’s illegal activities tied to the Watergate scandal.

As one Texas Monthly article puts it, the Enron scandal involved highly questionable financial practices that included the creation of financial entities to help Enron conceal the company’s growing debt from Wall Street, regulators and the general public. The book Power Failure provides an in-depth look at how all of Enron’s troubles began and how its illegal activities ruined the lives of so many.

Conclusion

Always make sure your company (or government office) provides all supervisory personnel with comprehensive training on the proper ways to respond once a whistleblower complaint has been filed (or is referenced by an employee). And remember that retaliatory acts must be avoided since they’re illegal and often very costly.

If you believe an employee is preparing to file a “whistleblower” complaint against you, please contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys right away. We can explain your legal rights to you and help you take the proper steps to respond appropriately. Timely intervention can prevent critical misunderstandings and unnecessary litigation.

IRS Clarifies “Employee” Versus “Independent Contractor” Test

The IRS recently issued clarifying guidelines to help employers determine which workers should be treated as independent contractors or employees. The government naturally wants accurate decisions to be made since they determine when it’s paid certain taxes on each worker’s wages.

The main deductions that should be subtracted from all employees’ paychecks include those for Social Security, Medicare, unemployment and income taxes. When a business has work done by an independent contractor, that person must pay all those taxes in the form of self-employment tax.

What remains the general standard for deciding if a worker is an independent contractor?

If an employer reserves the right to only direct control over the result of the work – and cannot tell a worker exactly what to do and how to handle the assignment – then that worker will usually be legally viewed as an independent contractor.

However, deciding what constitutes specific directions for completing a given task can still fall into a gray area.

Fortunately, there are three basic analytic categories that can help employers accurately determine when workers are properly classified as “employees” or “independent contractors.”

What are the three main categories of analysis for deciding a worker’s correct status?

The IRS indicates that employers should carefully examine the following three aspects of how they relate to workers to determine their proper work status.

  1. Behavior control. An employer may have behavior control over a worker even when it does not exercise it. For example, when such control is involved, it may include telling a worker which specific tools to use and where those supplies should be purchased. Under those circumstances, the worker should be considered an employee. Conversely, the less control over a worker’s behavior, the greater the chance that the person is working as an independent contractor.

If there are strict guidelines for determining the quality of the work provided, there’s a strong chance that the worker is an employee. When the worker is provided a bit more leeway in terms of quality control – there’s a stronger chance that the person is an independent contractor.

Of course, the two parties will usually need to agree to some basic quality standards, regardless of whether the worker is an employee or independent contractor. Finally, if periodic training or ongoing training is required of a worker – that increases the chances that the worker should be treated as an employee.

  1. Financial control. Does the worker have to personally cover the majority (or all) of the expenses tied to completing the work? These might include the purchase and maintenance of proper computers, printers, fax machines, scanners and other required equipment. If the worker is covering all those expenses, he or she should probably be classified as an independent contractor.

Stated differently, when a worker has many unreimbursed expenses, that person is usually an independent contractor — not an employee. Independent contractors are also those who retain the right to continue obtaining additional work from other parties. As for the payment for services, independent contractors are usually paid a flat fee – although that arrangement can vary in some cases.

  1. How the employer and worker each perceive the nature of their relationship. When the parties have not negotiated any employee benefits like vacation pay, sick pay, a pension plan and stock options – the worker is usually an independent contractor. While a written contract signed by the two parties can indicate how they view their interactions, it’s not always the only evidence the IRS and the courts will review when classifying the work relationship. All relevant documents and communications may need to be examined.

The main consequence for an employer who misclassifies a worker is that the employer may be required to pay all employment taxes currently owing for that worker – as opposed to requiring the worker to cover them.

What unique emphasis is placed on these three categories in the updated guidelines?

As for behavior control, employers really shouldn’t be telling the independent contractor the exact sequence of events for all tasks to be performed or exactly how they should be handled.

Regarding financial control, only independent contractors can experience a profit or loss while handling assigned tasks. Employees whose expenses are generally covered will usually not experience any profit or loss while completing assigned tasks on a given schedule.

As for how the parties view their work relationship, a fully executed contract can be controlling when other conclusive details aren’t available. However, as briefly noted above, the parties’ communications can usually provide clear indications of whether they’re interacting as employer-employee or employer and independent contractor.

The key bottom line for employers who don’t want to only work with employees – is to allow their independent contractors considerable flexibility while completing tasks – while respecting professional standards acceptable to both parties.

Please give our law firm a call if you need any help determining which workers are employees or independent contractors. We can also help you better understand the many different types of classifications that govern a wide range of employees you may want to hire – and the tax consequences for hiring those who fit in each group.

Our firm always remains available to help you draft many different types of contracts that can serve all your business needs.

Everyone Should Benefit When an Employee Is Properly Fired

While most people don’t enjoy being fired from a job, everyone can benefit if the process is handled properly. To understand how this result is possible, it’s important to remember that your employees must be able to work together as a team. When one member is completely out of sync with the others or simply cannot do the assigned work in a timely manner, everyone suffers. So, once you’ve efficiently moved through the firing stages, most staff members will finally get the chance to perform at their highest level again.

The following information provides a brief overview of important goals to keep in mind when firing an employee. It also provides tips for protecting your company from wrongful termination lawsuits and describes the best way to meet with people while firing them.

How to Display Good Character and Protect the Business from Lawsuits

  • Be sure to clearly explain all employee management and firing guidelines in an employee handbook. Always hand one of these out to all new-hires on their first day at work and have them sign a simple form noting that they’ve received the booklet and will carefully review it right away. It’s even better to gather together “new hires” within a week or two of their starting at your company and covering basic information in the handbook;
  • Carefully investigate all the facts involved with possibly firing a specific employee. Also, make sure all supervisors are regularly interacting with each employee and telling them when their performance needs improvement – in writing (be sure to have the employee sign and date this form before placing it in a permanent file);
  • Review all applicable state and federal laws regarding termination. If necessary, speak with your attorney if you have any major questions – or believe the employee is likely to sue. Always remember that some employees are very sensitive to issues involving race, gender, ethnicity, religion, nationality, veteran status, disability, age and sexual orientation;
  • Gather together all pertinent, written evidence concerning the employee’s work record. Be prepared to keep this file in a very safe place in case a lawsuit is later filed. While doing this, rethink all the hiring practices that may need to be revised so you can avoid hiring a similar person in the future;
  • Treat the employee with dignity and respect. Don’t gossip about your firing plans. Meet with the employee in a private office setting with at least one other staff member present to serve as a witness. Respect the fact that the process of being fired may be hard on the individual. Unless the employee is guilty of terrible misconduct, remain open to paying a later unemployment insurance claim. Consider offering a severance package in exchange for the employee signing a waiver not to sue for wrongful termination. Be polite yet firm when simply stating the reasons for your decision. Finally, let the individual speak briefly about how they feel about the event. And be sure to pay all monies owed for accrued sick leave and vacation time;
  • Know that you may face sociological repercussions among other workers after the firing. If what you have done in firing a specific person is considered unfair, you may have a problem regaining the respect of many co-workers and superiors. It’s always wise to meet briefly with all concerned employees and simply state that the individual is no longer with the company and that you would prefer to not discuss it further for privacy reasons;
  • Be sure to retrieve all company property prior to providing a last check to the fired employee. You’ll also want to ask for the company laptop and any keys to office property. Be sure to immediately notify your computer and building security forces so they can block the employee’s future access to the company database and email system.  You’ll also need to collect all company I.D. cards and uniforms.

Finally, try to part on pleasant terms with outgoing employees, perhaps noting that you believe that they’ll find a better fit in other positions soon. Everyone really can benefit from a properly handled firing since it can eventually improve workplace morale. In fact, even the fired employee may soon find an equal or better position somewhere else.

Be sure to call our firm if you need any specific advice about preparing an employee handbook, interacting with troublesome staff members — or any other employment law issue.