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Employee Handbook Essentials

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According to Jim Webber, an independent human resources consultant for the collision repair industry, there are just too many employee lawsuits. Besides criminal cases, employment cases are the most common type of case that go to court in the United States, Webber explains. Many of these could be prevented by making an employee handbook available that gives employees an outlet for their problems, Webber says.

“Employee handbooks can be a good way to create morale and foster team spirit while also protecting employers,” Webber says.

Webber, who has over 25 years of experience as an employment lawyer and human resources manager, says many cases that should be thrown out end up going to court because the employer cannot provide documentation that the employee was made aware of certain policies. In order to prevent lawsuits and create a culture of unity, company-wide policies need to made readily available to employees, whether it’s located on a website or bound in a physical book is up to the company, Webber says, but having a resource for employees will help streamline the way shops operate and potentially save employees the headache of a lawsuit.

In your opinion, do you think MSOs do a good job of setting-up and implementing employee handbooks?
From my experience, it varies from company to company. I’ve worked with some that were great at it. Some have had a great master handbook for the company, but it wasn’t made readily available to the individual shops where people were working. Another problem is that many are not current, it depends on the individual sites.

Do you think it is important for MSOs to have a standard employee handbook for all of its shops?
I do. I don’t think it necessarily has to be a handbook but there needs to be a set of policies, whether it’s in print or online, that can be easily accessed by all employees.

What are the critical things that a collision MSO should include in its company handbook?
Recently, I feel like employee handbooks have been taken over by lawyers and started becoming more of a legal necessity. This doesn’t mean shops should create a handbook in a way just to protect themselves from lawsuit. A good handbook should touch on the company's culture, what’s important to the company and what employees need to know. It should include sections on harassment and discrimination, especially because of the frequency of those cases going to court. It’ll be the first thing the courts ask, whether or not the employee was made aware of these policies. For MSOs, the handbook needs to include communication outlets so that employees who are working under one manager have a way of expressing their concerns with someone else if that particular manager is the problem. There should be a clear chain of communication for where employees should go when they have an issue. Safety and materials sections are big ones for collision shops. A section on what employees should do if a customer’s vehicle is damaged while in the shop or how to handle disgruntled customers should also be included. Setting up an employee handbook all boils down to what a company expects from its people.

For an MSO that has just acquired a shop, what would you suggest for its new procedures and handbook?
Before implementing anything, I think it’s important that the new company becomes familiar with the working procedures and practices that the existing shop had. That’s the first step. That way, the new management can explain what will be staying the same and what will be changing. The second part is that the new expectations need to be made clear. Is the processes for timesheets the same? Who should they contact if they have a problem? It’s important that the employees feel comfortable with the new management and changes. After that has been established, the handbook should be made available and a series of trainings should occur. Ideally, a manager from the acquired shop and a representative from the new company can lead small-group trainings and distribute new materials.

What should employers be aware of when setting up an employee handbook from a legal standpoint?
One of the most common mistakes that I see in employee handbooks is writing it in a way that makes promises that the company may not be able to keep. It’s important to remember that an employee handbook is not a contract. That should even be written in the handbook somewhere. Not having the disclaimer that the handbook is not a contract is so common. Make it clear that it is subject to change. If something in the handbook is changed or needs to be changed, stay on top of it. Make sure that employees sign something that says that they were made aware of the change. If a training occurs on a policy, keep records of the employees that were in attendance. That way, if a legal situation does arise, employers have documentation that the employee was notified of the policy.

What are other common mistakes made when creating an employee handbook?
Sometimes, companies will get a handbook from another company and use it because it’s already been vetted and looks good. This doesn’t work because the processes for every company are different. For example, if there’s a section on checking-out equipment, and this particular company doesn’t check-out equipment, that doesn’t make sense. Not including a section on harassment is a big one. Courts are always going to look and make sure that there is something in place on harassment. I’ve seen cases where the employer really didn’t do anything wrong but they were not able to get the case dismissed because they were not able to show proof that the employee had an avenue to resolve his or her issue. Another issue many employers have is the writing style. Many people think that they’re good writers and write the handbook themselves. It should sound professional. It needs to be consistent. If you are going to write it yourself, read it as if you were a new employee and ask yourself what you think of it after you’ve read it.

For an MSO, what would you suggest an employee do if he or she has a question about the handbook? Should this be handled in-house or on a corporate level?
It depends on the type of question. Most questions can be handled on the local level. However, if it’s a larger issue question or a question about the local management, it should go upstairs. There should be a master employee handbook that everyone is the company is bound by. If operations are different from shop to shop, there can be another handbook that includes those procedures but there should still be one set of policies that everyone follows a clear path that employees can take if they have an issue.

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