It Is Not Too Late to Consider Updating Your Employee Handbook for 2019
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It Is Not Too Late to Consider Updating Your Employee Handbook for 2019

One of the most common workplace documents is an employee handbook. Sometimes referred to as an employee manual, staff handbook or personnel manual, an employee handbook is a common mechanism for promoting your workplace policies, procedures and rules and is an effective way to convey to employees what is expected of them as employees of your company in terms of their rights and obligations.

Employee handbooks are an often neglected and underappreciated company document. Preparing, maintaining, and updating a handbook that reflects the policies of your company and your operations takes time and expertise. A well-written employee handbook can be an effective document to ensure compliance with applicable laws as they evolve and as new laws go into effect. An outdated handbook can be a liability.

An effective employee handbook should be drafted so that it is organised, easy to read and user-friendly. Use plain language. Disclaimers are critical and should include that the handbook is not a contract of employment, nor does it form a contractual obligation on the employer, and that the policies within the handbook may be revised, modified, or revoked at any time, with or without notice. The handbook should set forth the expectations for employees for attendance, conduct, and discipline; however, make sure that the company retains discretion and flexibility when making decisions.

Here are some key policies that likely need updating for 2019:

Anti-Harassment Policy

As allegations of workplace sexual harassment and the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have made headlines across the world, it has reinforced the fact that your company policies can help set the tone and expectation that your company is committed to maintaining a workplace free of harassment. Typically, policies in handbooks should be written in plain English and avoid jargon, but this is one policy where your company should explain not only what constitutes sexual harassment under the law, but also what type of conduct will violate your company’s anti-harassment policy.

Conduct that may not rise to the level of legally actionable harassment may still violate your company’s policy against harassment. A robust anti-harassment policy will have a number of channels for complaints and not just the supervisor. Oftentimes, the supervisor does not properly elevate the complaint and, of course, there needs to be another channel for bringing a complaint when the supervisor is allegedly causing the problem. Set forth a number of positions, such as the Human Resources Director or Director of Operations, and include the names, telephone numbers, and email addresses of the individuals holding those positions. It is helpful if both genders are represented. The policy should confirm that all complaints will be promptly and thoroughly investigated, confidentiality will be maintained to the extent possible, and retaliation will not be tolerated against anyone who brings a complaint in good faith.

Leave Policies

Your company Leave policies may require some updating in 2019.

On 12 December 2018, the Fair Work Amendment (Family and Domestic Violence Leave) Act 2018 took effect. The Fair Work Act 2009 now includes an entitlement to unpaid family and domestic violence leave as part of the National Employment Standards (NES). This entitlement applies to all employees (including part-time and casual employees).

Since 1 August 2018, employees covered by industry and occupation awards have been able to access unpaid family and domestic violence leave under their award, following a Fair Work Commission decision to introduce this entitlement into these awards. However, the recent changes to the Fair Work Act 2009 mean that all employees now have access to this leave entitlement, regardless of whether they’re covered by an award or not.

Some businesses may provide paid or unpaid family and domestic violence leave entitlements in their employment contracts or workplace policies. The amount of leave and pay entitlements will depend on the contract or policy.

If an employment contract or workplace policy provides less than the minimum entitlement in the National Employment Standards (NES), the NES entitlement still applies. Your workplace policies about family and domestic violence leave should now ensure an employee is entitled to 5 days of unpaid leave each year under the NES.

Flexible Working

On December 1 2018, the Fair Work Commission finalised the model term for requesting flexible working arrangements which have been inserted into all modern awards as part of the 4-yearly review.

The term applies to award covered employees when an employee has made a request for a change in working arrangements under the National Employment Standards (NES). Previously, there was no obligation under the NES to deal with the requesting employee about the request.  However, the new model term requires the employer, before responding to the request to:

  • discuss the request with the employee; and
  • genuinely try to reach agreement on a change in working arrangements that will reasonably accommodate the employee’s circumstances, having regard to:
  • the needs of the employee arising from their circumstances;
  • the consequences for the employee if changes in working arrangements are not made; and
  • any reasonable business grounds for refusing the request.

Requests can only be refused on reasonable business grounds. If employers refuse a request, they need to provide the employee with a written response. Employers should also consider whether they will extend the expanded rights to non-award covered employees to ensure parity and consistency across the workforce.

Vaping in the Workplace

With the rise in popularity of e-cigarettes, vaping and other tobacco substitutes, many workplaces are updating their employee handbooks to cover this trend that sits outside the traditional tobacco smoking at work policies. The rules on the use of e-cigarettes at work should be absolutely clear. If the company already has existing policy on smoking, a few paragraphs about electronic cigarettes could be inserted.

The new rules should state, among other things, if vaping in the workplace is allowed or not. If it is, then the rules should indicate clearly where electronic cigarette use will be allowed. That means assigning “vaping areas”, much like the smoking areas that are given to employees who smoke in organisations where smoking in the workplace is still allowed. This is to make sure that those who use electronic cigarettes as a smoking cessation tool can continue to have the freedom to do so at work. At the same time, assigning vaping areas also ensures that non-vapers won’t be bothered by the sight and smell of electronic cigarette vapour.

What does this mean for you?

Don’t let your employee handbook sit on a shelf collecting dust. It is a living document that should be regularly reviewed. When updating, obtain the assistance of human resources, information technology, and legal counsel. Once all policy provisions have been drafted and reviewed, it is time to finalise the handbook and distribute it. In doing so, it is essential for you to obtain an acknowledgement from each employee indicating that the policies contained in the employee handbook have been received, reviewed and consented to. Further, you should conduct training on the handbook and all relevant policies so that employees and managers are familiar with it and understand it.


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