Employee manuals: Friend or foe?


Employment manuals: Are they the glue that bonds the relationship between employer and employee? Or are they the grim reaper of future litigation?

Employment manuals: Are they the glue that bonds the relationship betweenemployer and employee? Or are they the grim reaper of future litigation?

The decision whether to write or refer to an existing employment manuallargely depends on the motive behind the task.

Words that are strung together in an employment manual, if properly executed,can bring organization to a discombobulated practice; and those same wordscan land you a day in court if they are brought out for the first time asa case to fire someone.

Manuals can't be written in a "one size fits all" format. Andthey're not for everybody.

Mady Devine, human resources consultant to veterinary practices and otherprofessions, says caution should be exercised when jumping on the manualbandwagon.

"For example, I was recently in a practice where they did not designateshifts. It was such a loose practice - everybody loved working there becauseof the flexibility. That would've been the wrong practice to suggest havingan employment manual. The way that they operated - it worked without anemployment manual.

"Veterinarians don't understand that you can't take a cookie-cutteremployment manual and simply put it in your business and expect it to bea useful tool," says Devine. "It has to be customized to the cultureof the business. You have to make a commitment that what is in the bookis what you're going to administer to. If you put something in writing anddon't administer to it, you have a greater legal liability than not havingone at all.

Manual or no?

First, you must decide whether you prefer to have written guidelinesfor an array of personnel issues, advises Charlotte Lacroix, DVM, JD, whoconsults with veterinary practices on employment issues.

Once decided, absolutely essential, adds Devine, is the person accountablefor making the decisions on the employment manual. In most cases, that wouldbe the owner or practice manager, depending on practice size.

"Then you make a determination - if you write these rules, you'llhave to administer to them," Devine says. "If you're going tohave a difficult time administering them, then don't do it."

Subjects you might find in a manual include: vacation time, sick andpersonal leave, jury duty, overtime, work schedules, employee benefits,performance appraisals, attire, and termination policy.

"There's liability attached to the manuals. Employment manuals tryto articulate the employment relationship, but they have to comply withstate and federal law," says Lacroix.

No engraved rule

Of note, employee manuals are not standardized, because they are designedto offer flexibility as spelled out by each particular practice.

"For example, you can decide whether or not you want to give vacationto your employees - you don't have to give vacation to people," shesays. "Each employer has different circumstances." Lacroix says.

Once you've committed to writing a manual, it is suggested that you obtaina template that sets up loose guidelines for creating a manual. Such materialsmight be advertised in a publication or offered in an office supply store.Ask colleagues if you could borrow their program or talk to your trade associations,such as AAHA, recommends Lacroix.

The templates should be specifically tailored to the veterinary practitioner.

On the other hand, Devine feels strongly that a veterinarian's core competenciesare as a scientist. "They really should look at their practice andoutsource beyond their core competencies. If they still choose to do itthemselves, have it reviewed by an employment attorney."

Not contractual

About 30 to 40 percent of veterinary practices are believed to have workingmanuals, Lacroix estimates. Of those, she says maybe 5 percent have themreviewed professionally.

Veterinarians and practice owners run into trouble when they neglectto write disclaimers informing the employee that the manual is not an employmentcontract and that it is subject to change at any time.

"With employment manuals, there's a big deal whether you shouldhave an employee sign an employment manual," says Devine. Typicallyyou state in a manual that you reserve the right to change or modify anytime you feel like it. Still how you communicate those changes is very important."

Before you fire

Poorly drafted termination provisions in an employment manual are a redflag, as they would prohibit an employer from immediately terminating anemployee who they would like to terminate otherwise.

Devine shares a recent client inquiry: "Our manual says this andwe have this employee we want to fire. But we haven't administered the ruleto everybody else."

She suggested the employer not fire the person, because of liability.Instead she recommended the employer call a meeting and review policiesof the handbook. "Tell them that effective in two weeks, you're goingto start to administer to those rules.

"How to terminate an employee without incurring any liabilities,and without violating any state or federal laws - that's what we tend tosee the most - employers who want to fire the employee and they're scaredto do it," says Devine. "Probably because they haven't createdthe paper trail to do it."

If these predicaments are occurring frequently, Lacroix suggests consultingoutside help.

"Unfortunately veterinarians consult me after they have put togetherone of the employee manuals and the manual hasn't solved the problem,"she says. "It has actually made it worse.

"It's almost better not to have a manual sometimes than it is tohave one that could potentially be used against you."

Cost short-term

A mere $1,000 check will ensure you a functional manual, says Lacroix."Not much when you look at the thousands of dollars in legal fees.Obviously the bigger the practice, the more policies. A manual can saveyou tens of thousands of dollars."

Concurs Devine, "If it's appropriate for the business, it will answerand streamline the administrative side of managing the practice."

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