Update Your Employee Handbook in 2021

Adam Hamel Headshot
Adam M. Hamel
Director, Litigation Department and Vice Chair, Employment Practice Group
Published: New Hampshire Business Review
February 22, 2021

Federal and state employment laws are constantly changing, so policies and practices should be regularly updated.

Employee handbooks are an important, and often overlooked, tool for the effective management of your business. A comprehensive, well-organized, and up-to-date handbook that is customized to your business provides guidance to employees and managers within your company about what is expected of them and how to address various situations that arise in the course of running a business.

Handbooks are also an important to establishing and promoting a culture of respect and professionalism within your organization. They also are an important risk-management tool, because having clearly documented, legally-compliant polices that are consistently and fairly applied helps avoid dealing with problems on an ad hoc basis, which can lead to claims of discrimination or inadvertent violations of employment laws.

If your company does not have an employee handbook, you should work with an employment lawyer to develop a handbook that is specifically tailored to your business. Off-the-shelf template handbooks may be convenient and inexpensive, but each business is unique and customization to your business’s specific needs is critical for ensuring that an employee handbook is effective.

If your company already has an employee handbook, when was it last updated? Federal and state laws relating to employment matters are constantly changing and companies’ policies and practices need to be regularly updated to ensure that employers are complying with current applicable laws.

The following are some handbook areas that employers might consider focusing on for 2021:

Remote work rules

The Covid-19 pandemic changed the way that many employees work. As the virus spread, companies were forced to shift their operations, and millions of employees began working from home.

Remote work will continue to be a necessity for many companies well into 2021. But even after the pandemic subsides, it is now expected that remote work will continue to play a large part in the way people work. Some companies are even planning to permanently shift some or all of their operations to remote work. These changes have raised a host of issues about work schedules, timekeeping, communications, technology use, and other issues that will require employers to have clear remote work policies in place.

Multistate workforces

Employers with operations in multiple states need to be mindful of differences in state employment laws that could affect their workforce.

Some employers with multistate workforces choose to include state-specific provisions in their handbooks identifying differences in polices affecting employees in various locations. In some cases, employers with workers in multiple states will choose to apply the most employee-friendly state law to their entire workforce when doing so allows the employer to comply with the law while also treating all employees the same, which can be helpful for maintaining employee morale. Employers with a newly-remote workforce also need to consider whether employees working from far-flung locations in various states raises compliance issues.

Dress codes

Some older employee handbooks contain very detailed policies regarding employee dress and grooming. While such policies may be well-intentioned and meant to ensure that employees project a professional image while at work, overly prescriptive dress codes mandating or prohibiting specific clothing based on gender or restricting certain hairstyles or facial hair, may have the unintended consequence of exposing the company to risk of discriminating against employees based on gender, race, religion or ethnicity.

Companies should consider providing more general guidelines about appearance that are focused on job-related duties or safety concerns.

Social media policies

Employee use of social media can be a challenge for many employers. At its worst, social media can be used as a means of harassment, discrimination, and bullying in the workplace. A well-drafted social media policy can help avoid some of these problems and address them when they arise. It is important, however, that your company’s social media policy does not interfere with employees’ legally-protected right to engage in concerted activity with coworkers about the terms and conditions of their employment.

Don’t underestimate the importance of a good employee handbook to your business. If your company does not have a handbook, or if yours hasn’t been updated in a while, add it to your 2021 “to do” list today.