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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

At-Will Employment: The Employee Handbook

WHAT CONSTITUTES AN EMPLOYEE HANDBOOK: An employee handbook can consist of a two page memo informing your employees of specific rules regarding a certain aspect of their employment or it can be a three volume epic covering every aspect of employee behavior, benefits and duties.

DOES A HANDBOOK CREATE A CONTRACT? Not under Virginia law unless there is a written or oral agreement referencing the handbook. However, there are certain conditions in which a handbook or manual can be relied on to establish an employee's rights against an employer. These conditions are: 1) when the wording appears to take the relationship out of an at-will context by fixing the duration of the term of employment, and 2) if its terms constitute a binding promise. An employer may be unhappy to find that a jury or a judge will make the final decision as to whether the wording of the handbook changed the relationship from at-will employment to something more binding.

ACTION ADVICE: Always have your employee handbooks or handbook modifications written by an attorney. Make sure that the handbook states that the terms of employment are "at will". Avoid vague language that may promise benefits that the company does not wish to provide. When discussing disciplinary procedures, give the employer broad discretion to impose probation, demotion and termination. Have employees sign for receipt of the handbook. Finally, follow the handbook when making decisions about employee benefits and discipline.

The above is not meant to replace legal counsel. If you'd like to speak to one of Gross & Romanick's lawyers, call us today at 703-273-1400 or fill out our Online Information Request form.