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.

Obtaining A Mechanic’s Lien in Texas

Once your company has been hired as a contractor or subcontractor to build, repair or renovate a structure for others, it may become necessary to file a mechanic’s lien on the property to ensure that you’ll be promptly paid for all your labor and materials. This type of lien must be filed with the County Recorder or Clerk in the county where the property is located. When a company fails to file this type of lien before the property worked on is sold – it can become more difficult to enforce your rights against the party who contracted with you.

As the State Bar of Texas explains in one of its publications addressing mechanic lien rights, shortly after you begin your work – and long before you ever need to send out any invoices  — you should also consider sending out two notices to the other parties to your contract. These are known as a Notice of Contractual Retainage Agreement and a Notice of Specially Fabricated Materials. 

Since mechanic’s liens can be rather detailed and are drafted a bit differently in most states, it’s always wise to obtain legal advice on how this document should be appropriately worded. However, it’s usually not best to begin trying to collect all funds owed to you by filing this type of lien. Your first step in the process of seeking payment should be to simply mail your final invoice and other pertinent statements to the party that hired your company.

Additional Steps That Should Precede the Filing of a Mechanic’s Lien

It’s a good idea to send your initial invoice and statements via certified mail so you can later document the amount of time the other party has had to pay all that’s owed. If you receive no response, you should directly call the party who initially agreed to pay your company for its work. If you still cannot obtain the money owed, you should ask your Texas business attorney to send a formal yet polite demand letter using the law firm letterhead, seeking immediate payment of all sums owed.

Once a late-paying client is aware that you have a law firm acting on your behalf, they will often submit prompt payment. If you still cannot recover all sums owed to you, be sure to ask your attorney how quickly you must file a mechanic’s lien – so that a sale of the property on which you worked cannot occur so quickly that it might compromise your rights.

Consider Filing a Lawsuit after Filing a Lien

As your lawyer will tell you, Texas is a bit different than many other states because our state’s laws providing the right to file a contractor’s lien are set forth in our state constitution. In fact, Article XVI, Section 37 of the Texas Constitution protects the rights of all mechanics, artisans and others who handle materials while building, repairing or renovating another party’s property. These rights are further set forth in Chapter 53 of the Texas Property Code.

Unfortunately, Chapter 53 is rather long and its description of your mechanic’s lien rights can be difficult to interpret at times. Nevertheless, an experienced attorney can provide you with answers to your questions that cannot be readily answered by reading that material. Common questions regarding liens often revolve around the types of contractors and subcontractors who can file a valid mechanic’s lien.

Texas law clearly indicates that most companies – even those who only briefly work on the property while planting a few trees or providing their landscaping skills — are entitled to file a lien.

Should You Also File a Lawsuit?

This is always a matter that you must discuss with your attorney. When it’s recommended, it’s normally done in addition to filing a mechanic’s lien against each of the appropriate parties to your contract. If you pursue this remedy, your lawyer will present several arguments. Chief among them will be the assertion that the party who directly hired you has breached your contract by failing to timely pay all reasonable amounts owed.

Our firm recognizes that it’s often difficult to understand all Texas mechanic’s lien rights, even if you’ve been working as a contractor or subcontractor for many years. Therefore, we welcome the chance to meet with you, so we can provide all the guidance you may need to obtain full and timely payment for all the services you have rendered to others.

Small Businesses Often Make Crucial Legal Mistakes

Even highly competent employees sometimes make serious legal errors while handling human resource, management, accounting and other business tasks. Since federal, state and local laws are constantly being updated, you must regularly speak with numerous employees to be sure they’re making timely and lawful decisions.

Should the feedback you receive concern you, it’s always best to consult with your Houston business law attorney to be sure you know how to promptly correct any possible errors. Lawsuits are often filed over very basic legal mistakes.

What are some of the most common legal errors that businesses keep making?

Most mistakes are made when employers try to be flexible with their rules. While compassion can go a long way toward helping you get along better with your employees, clarity and consistency are crucial. Always exercise caution when addressing the following issues.

  1. Each employee must be properly classified. You need to look at each position separately, based on all pertinent state and federal laws. If you simply decide to treat everyone as an “exempt” employee, you might be sued if you fail to provide proper overtime pay or adequate rest periods.
  2. Lunch breaks must be provided when required by law. Some employees may be entitled to a meal break after completing a specific number of hours during a shift.
  3. Make sure you’re properly labeling workers as either employees or independent contractors. You may hear from the IRS if you make this type of mistake. Take the time to speak with your lawyer about how you should carefully interact and communicate with independent contractors. Once a worker has strong legal grounds for believing that “employee” status has been conferred, you can be sued for specific benefits.
  4. You must be sure all employees understand what constitutes “sexual harassment.” If you’re sued in this field, one of your strongest defenses will be that you promptly trained all new managers and employees to help create a healthy work atmosphere. You must also develop a secure way for employees to submit complaints before problems escalate.
  5. You cannot punish or fire an employee for simply taking a leave of absence under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). To protect yourself, keep accurate records of all employee evaluations being conducted at routine intervals. If you’re particularly concerned about the behavior of someone taking FMLA leave, ask your attorney when you should sit down with that employee to discuss why you’re carefully monitoring their work performance – before letting them go.
  6. Be sure to issue final paychecks on a timely basis to all employees who are leaving. Find out if you’re required to provide this type of check even before an employee has returned all employer-provided equipment, vehicles or other materials.
  7. You must handle making loans to employees in a very careful manner. While this is often a kind gesture, you must set up a formal repayment schedule. Never simply deduct a portion of what’s owed from each future paycheck.
  8. Be sure to properly handle all employer obligations under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). You may need to make appropriate work accommodations and should always treat such workers fairly. Most disabled workers take great pride in being highly dependable and productive workers.
  9. COBRA healthcare coverage must be offered and administered properly. Give serious thought to creating a comprehensive package of this medical insurance paperwork so that it’s immediately ready to be given to qualified employees when they leave. Timing is critical so potential coverage won’t lapse.
  10. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) must be explained and handled appropriately. Employees have a right to privacy regarding their medical data and information – be sure you’re adequately protecting it while processing claims.
  11. Pension concerns must be addressed in a timely and proper manner. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) is a complicated law that requires extreme attention to detail. Always request legal advice when uncertain how to administer it.
  12. You must carefully handle all responsibilities under the Consumer Credit Protection Act (CCPA). You may need expert help calculating all your employees’ paycheck deductions for lawful wage garnishments – including those for child support and student loans. Look for highly respected software that may help your most experienced workers.
  13. Equal Pay Act. This law must be carefully followed since too many businesses keep failing to pay men and women fairly when handling similar work.
  14. Title VII concerns. Your company must avoid discriminatory practices when hiring, laying off and firing employees. Many businesses are learning to use multiple interviewers with highly diverse backgrounds so that fairness can be readily achieved.
  15. OSHA laws. You must make sure to keep adequate records covering all workplace accidents and injuries for an appropriate number of years — if you employ ten or more workers.

Should you have any questions about these topics, please contact your Murray Lobb lawyer to discuss your concerns. We have extensive experience providing legal advice to our clients so they can can readily comply with all federal, state and local laws.

Purchasing a Texas Franchise or Company Already in Business

Since only about twenty percent (20%) of new businesses survive past their first year, many savvy entrepreneurs prefer to buy a company or franchise that’s already up and running. That often proves wise – if the purchaser is willing to complete all the necessary research to make sure the current signs of financial success aren’t threatened by factors that no one is willing to disclose.

To make sure you handle all crucial due diligence inquiries properly, consider asking your experienced Houston business lawyers for the help and insights they can readily offer as you explore all the possible investment risks.

Once you’ve carefully answered the following questions — and analyzed the various concerns mentioned — you should be better prepared to decide whether to purchase a specific business or franchise.

Important business questions to answer – and key concerns to evaluate

  1. Is the product or service a good match for your interests and experience? People are often most successful when they feel passionate about the business they’re running. Should you be entering a field that’s unfamiliar to you, be prepared to hire different consultants as needed. Of course, if you’re buying into a franchise, the corporate headquarters will usually offer valuable training and products to help you;
  2. Why is the business for sale now? Is the current owner truly planning to retire or move closer to family across the country? Ask the current owner very direct questions. If you’re trying to buy a franchise, you’ll need to obtain a copy of the Franchise Disclosure Document. (This was formerly known as the Uniform Franchise Offering Circular or UFOC). It will fully inform you about a franchise’s financial, legal and personnel history;
  3. What business location is best for you? Be sure to ask the current owner to provide you with a breakdown of the business’ most regular customers. Are they residents of nearby neighborhoods — or simply commuters who work in the area? What types of seasonal downturns, if any, should you expect in business profits? Be ready to purchase zip code-based demographic reports that can provide you with information about your current customer base. There are also different types of geographic-information-system software programs that can help you evaluate consumer trends tied to local neighborhoods and the most recent census. (Always be sure your business location can offer adequate parking);
  4. Do you have adequate financial knowledge and good funding sources for your purchase? Be sure to have your Houston attorney review all the general business or franchise contracts tendered to you. Only work with a trustworthy financial consultant who can help you review each company’s current operating expenses. Also, obtain the help of a qualified lender you’ve dealt with in the past – or someone who comes highly recommended by business contacts you’ve known for years;
  5. Determine if you’re personally willing to take a “hands-on” approach to running the franchise or business. Be prepared to pay good wages to any managers you must hire. Good ones can “make or break” a successful franchise – or any other type of business. Be sure to tell any impressive managers and employees you meet that you may keep many current staff members on in the future – once you’ve reviewed all employee files;
  6. Be sure to personally observe the current quality of customer service. Ask about the specific training that helped produce the successful parts of it. Be prepared to provide an employee orientation and training program that honestly promises good wages and job benefits so employees will know how important they are to you;
  7. Network with similar local business owners and managers in the area. If necessary, consider taking one or more of them to lunch or dinner so you can pose insightful questions about their most difficult daily challenges doing business in the area;
  8. Find out what types of marketing plans are currently in place and if you can expect any corporate support in this regard. If you aren’t buying a franchise, contact the nearest small business administration (SBA) office to see what types of marketing and business planning programs they can offer to you;
  9. Plan on developing some type of regular community “presence” that can benefit everyone. This may take the form of financially sponsoring one or two local children’s sports teams. When you pay for the equipment and help secure uniforms – often emblazoned with your company name or logo — everyone will likely benefit;
  10. After you’ve completed all due diligence inquiries, visit pertinent local government offices. Check to see what types of new building permits have been issued – and find out if any new zoning changes will soon be enforced that could negatively affect the business you’re hoping to purchase.

Finally, read all you can about what has helped so many successful businesses and franchises remain profitable over recent decades. The more you learn about each of these companies, the more likely you’ll be to succeed in running your own franchise or new company.

At Murray Lobb, we’re always ready to help clients who may soon buy an operating business or franchise. We can guide you through all the detailed due diligence inquiries – and draft all the contracts and other documents you’ll need.

Administering the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

Prior to the passage of the FMLA in 1993, American workers had few options when they needed extra time off from work due to their own serious medical conditions and accidents – or those of immediate family members. In fact, workers often had to use up all their vacation and sick leave benefits, if entitled to any, and then worry about their job security if they needed more time off. (However, eligible women could seek the special help offered by the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act). 

Fortunately, the Family Medical Leave Act is still helping many 21st century workers address critical family caregiving duties and remains one of the signature pieces of legislation from the Clinton era.

Here’s a brief overview of specific provisions of the act that can help your qualified workers.

What basic opportunities does the FMLA offer qualified employees?

If a worker meets the minimum qualifications referenced below, it’s possible to take up to twelve (12) weeks of unpaid leave during a calendar year to take care of seriously ill family members, new children or the individual’s own major medical condition.

In 2008, the Family Medical Leave Act was updated so that qualified workers could also take time off work to take care of immediate family members who became very ill (or were seriously injured) while serving in the military.

The FMLA guarantees that qualified workers can take the extended time off work without having to worry about losing their jobs, their seniority or their employer-provided health care insurance.

Which types of employees are qualified to use the FMLA?

  • Those who have employers with 50 or more workers on the payroll for at least 20 workweeks during the preceding or current calendar year. A worker may still qualify even if all the 50 workers aren’t working at the same site – if they work within a 75-mile radius of one another;
  • Those who have worked for their employer for a minimum of 12 months, for a total of at least 1,250 hours. This means that many part-time workers may not qualify for FMLA leave. However, there are special rules that may apply to workers who are teachers, are highly paid – or are flight crew members of airlines;
  • Employees taking time off from jobs to handle their own “serious health conditions” – or those of covered family members. This time may also be used to take care of a new child or a servicemember in the immediate family who has been wounded.

Note:  Now that same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) individuals can also qualify like other workers to take care of their family members.

General questions often raised about the FMLA by employers and employees

Question 1:   Can the leave time requested be intermittent during a calendar year?

Answer 1:     Yes, if all the time that’s taken is counted toward the maximum amount of time off

                     allowed (12 weeks).

Question 2:  What government agency oversees and administers the FMLA for all federal

                     employees – as well as all state and local government workers and private

                     employees?

Answer 2:   The U. S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. This is noted in Fact

                   Sheet #77B entitled, “Protection for Individuals Under the FMLA.”

Question 3: Are all workers qualified to take time off from their jobs under the FMLA entitled

                     to receive pay while away from work?

Answer 3:    No. The FMLA doesn’t require employers to pay qualified employees while they’re

                    taking this type of leave. However, it’s up to your employer to let you make a claim

                    for regular vacation time, sick leave or annual time off.

Question 4: Can a qualified worker ever be granted more than 12 weeks of paid or unpaid

                     FMLA leave in one year?

Answer 4:   An exception only exists for qualified family caregivers of wounded

                    servicemembers. They’re allowed to take up to 26 weeks off from their jobs in a

                    given calendar year.

Question 5: Can a qualified worker request more than 12 weeks off under the FMLA to take care

                    of a newborn – or a newly adopted child?

Answer 5:   In general, the answer is “No.” However, individual states can pass their own

                   versions of the FMLA and provide somewhat different benefits. To date, the Texas

                   Workforce Commission says that Texas has not passed such legislation.

Although the Family Medical Leave Act is a straightforward piece of legislation, it’s been updated with new rules and regulations and interpreted by the courts. Therefore, it’s usually wise for employers to ask their Houston employment lawyer for help if they have any specific questions about properly handling FMLA issues.

Please feel free to contact Murray Lobb so we can help explain any specific aspects of the FMLA to you as you provide its benefits to your employees. We’re always available to research any questions you may have.

The Key Stages of Buying a Home in Texas

Even if you’ve bought a home in the past, it’s always wise to hire an experienced lawyer and real estate agent to help you buy a house in Texas. Contract clauses often change and you’re likely to need special provisions added to your formal offer and purchase agreement to fully protect your interests.

After contacting your Houston real estate lawyer, you’ll need to select a qualified real estate agent. When searching for one, ask close friends for recommendations if they’ve recently bought a home in one of your target areas. You can also search for an agent by visiting the Texas Real Estate Commission website —  and Trulia.com and realtor.com.

What follows is a general overview of the key stages of finding and purchasing a home in Texas when you’ve hired qualified professionals to help you.

Determining if it’s the right time to buy – what your needs are — and what you can afford

Always take time to decide if it’s really the right moment for you to purchase a home. You must be able to afford a monthly mortgage, homeowner’s (and title) insurance and the other expenses that go with buying a home and making repairs. Once you’re sure you want to buy now and know what you can afford to pay, contact several highly recommended real estate agents (who have brokered properties in your preferred area) and interview them over the phone or in person.

After checking each candidate’s references and hiring the most knowledgeable and pleasant one, you’ll be ready to start conducting your search for the right home.

You’ll first need to discuss your preferred price range and the preferred parts of town where you would like to buy a home. Be sure to note the property features that are “must haves” or “deal breakers” for you. Of course, remaining flexible is important so you can avoid missing the chance to buy one of the best homes available.

Where will you and your agent find the listings that you’ll want to see?

In addition to visiting publicly advertised “open house” events in your target areas, you and your agent can also view many available properties online. Savvy sellers often offer online visual tours of their homes to help attract prospective buyers — who can then request showings.

You can also visit the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) online and then discuss the properties that you like most with your agent. If your agent is well established in the area, you may even become privy to some private listings before others learn about them. Websites like trulia.com and realtor.com should also provide lists of many homes still on the market.

What other initial tasks can a realtor help you handle?

After you’ve met with a mortgage broker and located several properties that meet your needs, your realtor can prepare a written offer for the seller. Prior to making an offer, be sure to ask your agent if the seller has any recent home inspection reports to share with you. If none are available and you still want to make an offer on a house, your agent can make obtaining an acceptable home inspection report one of the contingencies in the home purchase agreement that must be met before you’ll purchase the house.

You’re now ready to go over the legally required disclosures that Texas requires property owners to make to parties offering to buy a home. Repairs currently needed must be detailed – along with notes about all recently completed ones. If you haven’t already received a thorough (recent) home inspection report, you really should obtain one now — so you won’t be suddenly surprised by major plumbing or other serious home repairs in the future.

Should certain repairs be needed – and you’re still willing to buy the house – your real estate agent can negotiate these matters with the buyer on your behalf. Also, you must have a title search run on the house. You don’t want to buy property with any troubling liens, easements or other encumbrances that can greatly limit your ability to fully enjoy the use of your new home.

At this point (if not already done), you should purchase title insurance so that if any future claims are made against the property by third parties, you’ll be able to properly protect all your legal interests.

Once all these matters have been fully negotiated between your agent and the seller, you’re ready to move forward into escrow.

What basic, final tasks should be handled right before — or during — escrow?

Your lawyer will make sure that the home purchase agreement contains all the necessary clauses required to protect your interests before escrow closes. If it hasn’t already been done, you should also have the home appraised to make sure your offered purchase price is reasonable and fair.

Next, all new home inspection reports should be carefully analyzed, and all financial arrangements finalized. On closing day, you’ll go to the title agent’s office to sign all the documents and pick up the keys to your new home. As the buyer, you’re not responsible for paying your real estate agent’s fees – they are covered by the seller.

After closing day, your Houston real estate attorney can check to be sure that the title to your new home has been properly recorded in the correct local government offices – and then provide you with official copies of the newly recorded title deed for your records.

Please contact Murray Lobb so we can provide you with the clear advice you’ll need while buying your new home. Since we have the necessary experience to address any problems that may arise, we should be able to minimize any stress for you. Your lawyer will remain available to answer all your questions as you prepare to move into your new home.