HR Management & Compliance

During HR Spring Cleaning, Don’t Forget Your Employee Handbooks

Employee handbooks should be reviewed at least once a year. The arrival of spring 2022 marks a good time to revisit the manuals with counsel and update your policies and practices. Read on to learn about a handful of handbook best practices as well as possible pitfalls you can avoid.

Explain How Family Leave Is Calculated

Similar to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Vermont’s Parental and Family Leave Act (PFLA) provides employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period for (1) their own serious illness or that of a family member or (2) the pregnancy, birth, or adoption of a child under the age of 16 years. In handbooks (for FMLA and/or PFLA leave alike), you should be sure to include how the 12-month period is calculated:

  • 12-month calendar year;
  • 12-month period measured forward from the first date an employee takes leave; or
  • Rolling 12-month period, looking backward.

In a backward-looking, 12-month rolling period, for example, the leave available to employees would be calculated backward 12 months from when the PFLA period begins. If they planned to begin the leave on July 31 and had already used six weeks of the leave in the 12 months before that date (i.e., from the previous August 1 through July 31), they would have six weeks of PFLA leave remaining.

If the method for calculating the 12-month period isn’t specified, the default is whatever approach is most advantageous to the employee.

Avoid Introductory Periods

One of the most important components of any handbook is the at-will employment statement. Something like: “Employment is voluntary and subject to termination by the employee or the employer at will, with or without cause, with or without notice, and with or without following any particular procedures or steps, at any time. Nothing in this handbook shall be interpreted to conflict with or to eliminate or modify in any way the employment-at-will status of employees.”

Some companies may be tempted to implement an introductory period at the outset of the employee’s employment, to (1) give both parties time to feel out whether the position is the right fit and (2) delay when benefits begin or the new hire can first take paid time off (PTO). “Introductory period” language, however, is often confusing and ambiguous and can expose you to additional liability.

Courts will look for any wording in a handbook inconsistent with at-will employment. An introductory period could undermine the relationship, suggesting there’s something more than at-will employment after the introductory period and potentially helping the individual to build a breach-of-implied-contract claim.

Instead of an introductory period, you should consider simply stating that certain benefits and PTO won’t be available until after a specified amount of time with the employer (e.g., 30 days). Note employees must be provided with paid sick leave immediately, but under Vermont law, you can limit the use of paid sick leave for up to a six-month waiting period.

Include Acknowledgment and Receipt Forms

Handbook policies become meaningless if you can’t show the guidance was provided and accessible to employees. Requiring an acknowledgement and receipt form gives the handbook authority and makes it more likely the policies will be followed. It also helps motivate employees to read the handbook and gives guidance and clarity in resolving HR issues. The form should indicate:

  • The employee has read and understands the handbook;
  • The handbook supersedes other policies on the same or similar topics;
  • Policies are subject to change; and
  • The employee understands and agrees the handbook doesn’t alter the at-will employment agreement.

Each employee should sign and date the acknowledgment form, which should then be placed in the individual’s personnel file. You also may want to include a separate acknowledgement and receipt form for your policy against discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, including an explicit agreement by the employee to comply with the provisions.

Consider Inclusive Language

Employers working to build diverse and inclusive environments should consider using “they/them” pronouns instead of “she/her” or “he/him” in their handbooks. For example: “If an employee has a question regarding the policies in this Handbook, they should contact the HR Director.” Similarly, employers including a policy on nursing in the workplace, as required by Vermont law, may wish to label it as a nursing parents, rather than nursing mothers, policy.

Language matters and can contribute to making the workplace more welcoming to all employees, fostering a space where they can focus on productivity and connection toward the organization’s purpose rather than battling with their identities.

Haley Peterson is an attorney with Dinse P.C., in Burlington, Vermont. You can reach her at hpeterson@dinse.com.