by Brenna Johnson 

A lot of small businesses don’t have a formal employee handbook. Handbooks aren’t required by law, but there are advantages to a clearly written, uniform set of policies that delineates performance standards and workplace behavior, as well as ensuring that employees are treated fairly and equally.

One of the most important features in an employee handbook is setting forth California-compliant meal and rest breaks. Employers often find themselves in litigation for meal and rest break violations. These cases are a lot easier to defend and can be avoided altogether, if the employer has a clear policy set forth in writing.  The California Supreme Court recently ruled in Brinker Restaurant Corporation v. Superior Court case, S166350, employers must relieve employees of all duty during meal periods but need not ensure they take them.  Thus, I strongly encourage all employers to have a meal and rest break policy in writing.

A good employee handbook is written in language that’s clearly understandable to employees and informs employees about their legal rights. That includes the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – and the California counterparts to those laws. Make sure you also include information on how to report harassment or discrimination.

Caution: You don’t want California courts to read your handbook as a contractual obligation. You can avoid that by including a disclaimer – in a prominent spot – stating that the handbook is not a contract and that it contains only general guidelines about the company’s policies. Indicate, too, that employment with your company is at-will and that the handbook can be modified by the employer at any time without a written revision.

Leave some flexibility in your procedures. For example, don’t say that a verbal warning is the first step in every disciplinary procedure. Some employee actions will call for immediate dismissal. Also, be sure you adhere to your policies on a consistent basis to avoid charges of discrimination.

Make sure every staff member receives a handbook, and that he or she signs off upon receipt.

Brenna Johnson
Brenna Johnson is an Employment Law Attorney, Workplace Investigator and Human Resources Consultant. Brenna is devoted to assisting California employers navigate California’s employment and labor laws.