Sometimes you need to give employees written rules, but sometimes oral rules work better. Knowing when each is important is…well…important. Here’s how to sort it all out so that you protect yourself from liability without unwittingly creating a binding contract when you don’t need or want one.

When You Want To Communicate a Temporary Benefit Or Promotion

When you want to communicate a temporary benefit, like overtime that might be required, or after-hours optional volunteer work, specify this orally. Make it clear whether employees will or will not be paid for time during various activities, and also make it clear (orally) that after-hours events are truly voluntary.

Most states are “at will” states, meaning that employers can fire employees for any reason at all, or no reason. But, if you put something in writing, employees may rely on this as part of a work contract. And, if they do, you may be liable for damages if you don’t perform – especially if the employee hires a lawyer and cites that he or she relied on the handbook or something else in writing and you didn’t hold up your end of the deal.

When You Want Flexible BYOD Rules

A lot of companies are allowing employees to bring in their own electronic devices, like laptops, cell phones, and tablets. This is good, in some ways, but it’s also bad in the sense that it opens up the door for more liability claims and creates security problems.

This asset tracking software is often used to track company assets, like laptops and other electronics, and IT departments also use it to track other forms of inventory. However, if BYOD is implemented in a company handbook, you may not be able to control how employees use company digital assets, especially if you give employees rights to access the network in an unfettered or unrestricted way, or if you fail to specify restrictions.

It’s often better to communicate BYOD orally, and then control security from the top down, forcing employees into a “sandboxed” environment where access to sensitive company assets is restricted. Alternatively, you could sandbox your company’s assets and prevent access to them by anyone without proper security clearance.

When You Must Specify Time, Dates, etc.

Avoid binding language in your handbook by avoiding times, dates, and other language which will create liability or obligation on your part. You should not specify promises, either directly or indirectly, permanent or lifetime, or anything that even suggests a fixed term of employment. Avoid language that may be construed to mean “justifiable cause” for termination unless you want to override the state’s “at will” laws and regulations for your company.

Legal Disclaimers Require Written Documentation

Things that do require written documentation involve minimum wage, hours worked, and employee rights guaranteed by the state’s statutes. These also include mandatory probationary periods, lunch periods and breaks, time card information, payday, overtime, garnishments, performance reviews, promotions, rules for layoff (especially if your company allows unions), employee roles and responsibilities, workplace rules, complaint procedures and policies, rules and regulations surrounding background and drug testing, the company mission statement, the purpose of the handbook, and any other information which may be required by law.

Patrick Young works as a warehouse supervisor. He likes to share his insights on the web. You can find his posts on a variety of management and business sites.

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