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Personnel Policies FAQ

Your business may be too small for a full-time human resources department. But you should have someone carrying out HR functions. Thanks to HR software and online resources, even small businesses can have robust personnel policies that support their business and keep their employees safe and satisfied.

Below are some frequently asked questions and answers about personnel policies. For more information, visit FindLaw's Employment Law and Human Resources section.

What are personnel policies?

Personnel policies are the rules and regulations your workers must follow while on the job. Personnel policies, or company policies, contain detailed explanations of workplace requirements. They can include things like time off, sick leave, and vacation time. Your policy should describe how many absences you permit before the employee faces disciplinary action.

Personnel policies should also address:

  • Job descriptions and details of job duties
  • Dress codes
  • Health and safety policies
  • Human resources reporting policies

Your personnel policies cover anything that affects your company culture and employee interactions.

Are personnel policies the same as employment contracts?

No. An employment contract defines the relationship between small-business owners and employees. The contract specifies employees' pay rates, benefits, and other factors. Personnel policies are general and apply to everyone who works with the company.

Do my policies have to follow employment laws?

Your company policies should follow federal and state HR policies and other laws. All employers must obey federal laws about sexual harassment, disability accommodation, workers' compensation, and occupational safety and health.

State and local laws may mirror federal laws or may contain more restrictions. Your workplace policy should include whatever is specific to your business and labor law requirements.

How often should I update my personnel policies?

Most federal and state laws affecting employment do not change much from year to year. You should update your personnel policies when:

  • Your employee benefits change, such as when you change insurance carriers or when eligibility requirements change.
  • State laws affecting overtime pay, job classifications, or minimum wage go into effect. For instance, beginning in 2024, California's minimum wage rose to $16 per hour for most jobs and $20 per hour for franchises.
  • Your company merges with another company or has a change of ownership. Even if there are no major policy changes, your employees should know that a change has occurred.

How can I let employees know our personnel policies?

Most HR professionals say you should give all new hires an employee handbook during your onboarding process. The employee handbook contains all your human resource policies and procedures. You're not required to have an employee handbook, but you should have written policies available for your workers.

Your employee handbook is the most convenient way to let new employees know your basic work policies and is a good place to put all state and federal laws your workers must follow. Your employee handbook should include information about federal laws and agencies, including:

  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC): The EEOC handles all discrimination and unfair hiring and firing claims. Employees must be able to contact the EEOC if they believe they have experienced harassment or discriminatory behavior.
  • The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): Public agencies and businesses with over 50 employees must comply with the FMLA. Eligible workers receive a leave of absence of up to 12 weeks to care for seriously ill family members or to recover from their own illness or injury.
  • Workers' Compensation Laws of Your State: Each state has its own laws about workers' compensation. Your workers must know how to file a claim and where to visit the company doctor.

Business owners often have their employees sign for their handbooks. In the event of legal action, the employer has proof that the worker knew of the company policies.

Are performance reviews part of personnel policy?

Your personnel policy should explain when employee evaluations will take place and how management evaluates employees. Your performance reviews should focus on tangible, measurable work elements to avoid legal issues. For example:

  • Work quality, productivity, meeting and exceeding sales goals
  • Customer service, positive and negative interactions with clients, customer reviews
  • Punctuality, reliability, absenteeism, abuse of leave policies

A performance review is not the same thing as a disciplinary hearing. A performance review should focus on strengths and weaknesses and give the employee goals to work toward before the next review.

For instance, a worker may have excellent customer service skills but lag in sales goals. In that case, the employee and manager should work together to determine why the employee is having trouble closing sales and correct that issue.

Your personnel policy or employee handbook should distinguish between performance reviews and disciplinary actions.

Is disciplinary action part of a personnel policy?

Employee discipline is a critical part of human resource management. Your personnel policy or employee handbook should clearly explain your disciplinary policy and the steps involved in the disciplinary process.

To avoid any legal issues later, you may want your disciplinary policy to be a separate part of your handbook or workplace policy manual. This way, employees cannot complain they were unaware of policies or potential violations.

You should also ensure that all violations are promptly dealt with and that all employees get equal treatment when a violation occurs. This helps avoid claims of discrimination or favoritism.

What is at-will employment?

At-will employment is a very misunderstood topic. Many employers and workers believe it means they are free to terminate the worker for any reason. Although this is technically true, employers cannot fire an employee willy-nilly. Even in at-will states, you cannot fire a worker:

  • For reasons related to race, religion, gender, national origin, or disability. This includes pregnancy and FMLA-based leave.
  • For filing an EEOC or OSHA claim, the so-called whistleblower's protection.
  • If there is an implied contract between the parties. Even if you do not have a written contract, an oral or implied employment contract may limit your ability to terminate a worker.
  • If your state has a public policy wrongful termination law.

It may seem strange for a state to allow at-will employment and then restrict at-will termination. However, some states, such as California, specifically prohibit employers from terminating employees when the employee is exercising a statutory right or refusing to break the law.

For instance, if an employer tells a worker, "Do this or I'll fire you," and the worker knows the action is illegal, the worker has the right to refuse. A wrongfully terminated worker can sue for lost wages and benefits.

Where can I find legal help?

Whether you're a startup or an established business, you need a solid personnel policy. If you have legal questions, talk with a small business law attorney in your area. They can answer your questions about federal, state, and local laws that impact your company policies.

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