Every design firm needs to have a comprehensive employee handbook. Quite separate from employment agreements that are specific to particular individuals (as discussed in a previous article, “Employment Agreements for Designers”), the handbook applies equally to all staff members. It documents general policies and rules and helps shape the overall culture of the company. In this article, we’ll provide guidance to design firm owners and managers on the essential contents of this important document.
In the United States, companies are not required by law to create an employee handbook. However, if there is a handbook in place and an employee brings a lawsuit against the employer, the current trend is for the court to regard the handbook as a legal document. A well-researched and well-written handbook indicates that you are aware of, and that it is your intention to comply fully with, state and federal laws regarding employer/employee relationships. It clarifies standard practices and expectations, demonstrates that they are consistent and reasonable, and helps to create a level playing field where all employees can excel.
Typically, the handbook is provided to each new employee at the time of hire. To set a warm tone, many handbooks open with a section on the company’s history, an overview of what the firm does, and an explanation of how it’s organized. Beyond that, the handbook is likely to include the following sections and topics.
This will have been stated in each person’s employment agreement, but chances are the handbook will reiterate the important fact that staff members are employed “at will” rather than for a fixed duration.
Up to this point, most of our handbook contents have emphasized things that the company expects from employees. In contrast, the next few sections describe benefits that the company is providing in return.
In most design firms, this section will explain a qualified retirement plan, which is any plan approved by the IRS for favorable tax treatment. The most common category is a defined contribution plan, meaning that the amount available to an employee upon retirement will depend upon the amount that the employer and/or employee contributed to the plan over the years of employment. Each defined contribution plan has different rules and contribution limits. An official plan document (often referred to as a “Summary Plan Description”) will be provided separately, including details about eligibility for participation. It’s most likely that you’ll encounter one of the following types of plans:
Toward the end of the handbook, a few miscellaneous items will be added:
On the last page of the handbook, there will be a place for the employee’s signature, indicating that he or she has received the handbook and understand the contents. This signed form is kept in a personnel file. If the employer later has to enforce a particular policy or rule, this demonstrates that the employee was aware that the policy existed.
If you’re in the process of putting together an employee handbook for the first time, or if you need some help in revising an existing handbook that’s gotten out of date, here’s a useful resource for you: Create Your Own Employee Handbook: A Legal & Practical Guide by Lisa Guerin and Amy DelPo, published by Nolo.
As soon as you’ve prepared a draft that you’re comfortable with, have your attorney review it before it’s distributed to any staff members.
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