Dust off your employee manual

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Does your team manual look like an ancient relic? Get it up to date with the latest labor laws and team policies.

Here's a question you're not going to want to answer: When was the last time you updated your employee manual? I'd guess that most of you don't know. That means it's time to take it out, shake off the cobwebs, and start revising. As you do, consider the following human resources issues. They're areas of big change—and you'll want to address them in your practice.

Mark Opperman

Paid time off

Traditionally, practices have offered employees a certain number of days off for vacation, sick leave, or personal time. But more and more practices are rolling all those days into "paid time off." With PTO, you don't pay for time off that hasn't been earned.

Let's say you offer an employee two weeks of vacation after two years of employment. That employee works for you for two years and one day—and leaves. You'd have to pay the team member for his or her two weeks of vacation.

Employees earn PTO based on their length of employment. So a team member might earn a day or two off a month depending on how long he or she has worked for you. This method of accrual protects you from paying for vacation and personal time that the employee hasn't earned.

Holidays

How many paid holidays do you offer, and is it time to change them? Most practices cover the six major holidays: New Year's Day, Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas (or the Jewish New Year). Many practices also give full-time employees their birthday off. That's an easy way to show team members you appreciate them, and it can improve retention. The trend now is to increase the number of holidays employees get. The average for a U.S. company is 10, but veterinary clinics average six.

What happens if a holiday falls on a day the employee doesn't normally work? Are you still required to pay him or her? The answer is yes, unless you have a policy like this in your employee manual: "If a holiday falls on a day that the employee is not normally scheduled to work, the employee will not receive any additional compensation for that day. The holiday benefit is paid only if the employee would normally have been paid for the day but, since the hospital was closed, he or she was unable to work." (This policy does not apply in California, where employees must be paid for holidays whether or not they fall on a workday.) If you wish to pay employees on a day they wouldn't normally work, that's your prerogative, but you need to write that policy into your manual. (For more on competitive benefits, see "Sweeten the Deal" of the June 2006 issue of Veterinary Economics.)

Drug and alcohol testing

You need a drug and alcohol policy both as a condition of employment and for your active employees. If your employment protocol doesn't include a drug and alcohol testing policy as part of your employment protocol, who are the people who have a drug or alcohol problem going to work for? They're going to come work for you!

I know I need to do this, but what about ... ?

In my opinion, all new employees should undergo drug testing as a requirement for employment. You have drugs and money at your clinic—it's the perfect workplace for someone who needs those things. You also need to protect patients and other employees. Simply attaching a drug test release form to your application may scare away people with a drug problem, but you still need to follow through and test.

You also need to establish a "drug-free workplace." The process isn't complicated. Go to dol.gov/elaws/drugfree.htm for information. (For more, see "Just Say yes to a Drug-Free Workplace" of the September 2006 issue.)

Employee discounts

What, if any, benefits are you offering to your employees for their pets? You certainly don't want your team members going to a neighboring practice for veterinary services, do you? Unfortunately, if you give your employees a discount greater than 20 percent, you must report that additional amount as unearned income on employees' W-2 forms at the end of the year. (See "Balancing benefit Discounts".) Therefore, many practices are looking for alternative ways to provide employee pet care. Links to helpful HR sites

A Web of laws

What about pet insurance? Instead of giving away 50 percent of the fees you'd normally charge for your services—or more—you'll receive income for your services. Even better, the employee will understand the value of pet insurance and promote it to your clients. Most pet insurance companies offer a discount to veterinary team members. Just remember to state how many pets per employee will be covered by the policy you pick and be sure team members know that they must live with and own the pets they claim.

Internet, computers, and e-mail

Do you have Internet access at your practice? If so, do you have a written computer-usage policy? Employees shouldn't expect that anything they create, store, send, or receive on workplace computers is private. The computers belong to the practice and may be used only for business purposes. For a sample technology-use policy, visit vetecon.com and click on Web Exclusives.

Blogging

"Blog" is short for "Web log." It's a journal or diary posted on the Internet. Having a personal blog is akin to publishing your own newspaper. Bloggers also may provide links to others or reproduce part or all of other blogs on their own blog. Blogs have a unique Web address or location. Unless its creator restricts access, the blog can be accessed by anyone on the Internet—including the estimated 262 million English-speaking individuals who go online.

What if an employee created a blog about your practice? It might be interesting, but it could also be dangerous. Do you have a policy in place regarding blogging as well as a privacy and confidentiality clause about the things that happen at your practice? These areas might need to be updated in your employee procedures manual. For a sample blogging policy, visit vetecon.com and click on Web Exclusives.

Special requirements

Depending on the size of your practice, you may need to address special state or federal requirements in your manual. For example, HIPPA, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission all impose specific rules. Check with your state and local regulatory agencies for helpful Web sites (see above). Requirements for sexual harassment, discrimination, OSHA rules, and records confidentiality, to name a few, have nothing to do with your practice size and may apply to all practices. It's a good idea to hire a good HR lawyer in your state to review your manual and make sure you're in compliance.

Your employee manual should state all your policies—which sets the groundwork for a successful relationship between you and your team. The manual also helps keep you out of trouble with the state labor board and other regulatory agencies. And because your policies and procedures change, an effective employee manual should never be static. So make the investment, and get your team back on the same page.

Veterinary Economics Hospital Management Editor Mark Opperman, CVPM, is owner of VMC Inc., a consulting firm based in Evergreen, Colo. Catch his daylong "HR Boot Camp" Sunday, Sept. 16, at CVC Central in Kansas City, Mo., where he and his team will cover hiring, firing, common human resources mistakes, and, yes, putting together a solid employee manual.

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