July 15, 2022
By Patrick Stanley
Hiring, managing, and firing employees can be a challenging process. Employee handbooks are one tool you can use to let employees know the rules of the office. However, if not drafted correctly or if not followed consistently, employee handbooks can do more harm than good.
Do I Need An Employee Handbook?
Many dentists wonder whether they need employee handbooks. Although not required, employee handbooks can be a good resource for both employers and employees to have. They set out in writing the policies you expect your staff to follow. Employee handbooks let your staff know your expectations. The employee handbook can also help provide a defense against a claim of wrongful termination and can serve as evidence that you are in compliance with Arizona and federal labor laws, but only if you follow the handbook.
For example, suppose your employee handbook provides that being late to work more than two times in a month is grounds for termination. If an employee violates that requirement, you have established cause for terminating the employee. Similarly, if the handbook sets forth the leave policy, and the policy in compliance with Arizona’s Paid Sick Leave Law, that could be useful in defending against a claim.
What Happens If I Don’t Follow The Handbook?
If you don’t follow the handbook, you could actually create new problems. Using the above example again, suppose you have a policy that allows you to terminate an employee who arrives late more than two times in a month. Instead of following the policy, you allow one employee to consistently arrive late. It could be a perfectly innocent reason, such as needing to arrive late because of childcare issues. However, if you allow that employee to arrive late, but discipline or terminate other employees for the same conduct, not only could it invalidate the benefits of the employee handbook, but could also be used as evidence of discriminatory treatment.
What Should Be In The Handbook?
The exact terms of the employee handbook can vary greatly, depending on your preferences and, if you are buying a practice with a handbook already in place, how much of a departure you want to make from the previous dentist’s practices. Some of the most common topics addressed in an employee handbook include:
Given the sensitive nature of medical records, and the potential exposure to liability under HIPAA, it is a good idea to include a section in the handbook explaining the importance of ensuring patients’ privacy in their protected health information. In addition, you may want to have the employee sign a separate confidentiality and non-disclosure agreement at the time of hire, outlining the importance of privacy and the consequences for failing to comply with privacy requirements. You may also want to consider extending the privacy and non-disclosure agreement to all of your business operations.
Many employees will probably be in scrubs, but you may want your front office staff in something more formal. You should also consider whether you want to adopt a policy on visible tattoos or piercings, especially if you are trying to project a professional and polished image.
Paid Time Off
This is often one of employees’ principal concerns. Beyond the simple decisions about how much vacation and sick time each employee will get, and how it will accrue, there are also questions about how much notice they will have to give beforehand, and how you will handle conflicting requests for vacation time. Holidays in general, and Christmas in particular, can often present a challenge, as many patients may need to use up any remaining amounts in their flexible spending accounts or insurance benefits before the end of the year, just as your staff wants time off.
Social Media/Computer Use
This is a relatively new issue, and while you may not necessarily want to be in the business of censoring your employees’ online activities, you may want to use the handbook to reiterate their privacy obligations, and that they should not be posting anything about any patients or co-workers online. You may also want to set up guidelines to restrict office computer use to work-related functions only, both for security and productivity reasons.
You may want to consider implementing periodic evaluations to allow you to provide feedback and constructive criticism to your employees. Providing positive feedback can be a morale booster for your best employees, while negative reviews can provide some insulation against liability if you ultimately terminate an underperforming employee.
Employees often have complaints, about co-workers, about the working conditions, about patients, and sometimes about you. You may want to include a process where employees can voice their concerns to you without fear of reprisal, as this can provide a way to resolve intra-office issues before they become serious.
This is probably the most helpful way to avoid wrongful termination lawsuits; provided, of course, that you follow the discipline process set out in your handbook. You and your attorney can discuss the range of potential infractions, from showing up late and having unexcused absences, to more serious issues like incompetence or embezzlement, as well as the possible consequences.
Whatever you have in your employment handbook, though, remember that the handbook only works if you actually follow the procedures and rules it contains. For example, if you have a procedure for disciplining staff members or a procedure for leave and PTO, but do not follow those procedures, you will have a hard time convincing a court that a disobedient employee should have known and followed the rules. Therefore, before adopting a set of rules, you should talk with an attorney about the pros and cons of the proposed plan, and consider whether you will be able to enforce the rules fairly and consistently.
If you own a dental practice and have questions about employee handbooks, please feel free to contact one of our attorneys directly.
This post is for informative purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with a licensed attorney. It provides general information and a general understanding of the law, but does not provide specific legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is created by the posting of this information. If you have specific legal questions after reading this post, you should contact a licensed attorney.