How detailed should an employment handbook be?

We are an at-will employer in Florida and our handbook is silent on many of our
policies. The handbook is primarily just a blank statement/description of what
the policy is. The concern is that each time an incident occurs the employer
follows different procedures on handling the incident. For example, we recently
had 4 employees who had deaths in the family 2 white females, 1 white male,
and 1 hispanic male. There is not a requirement listed in the handbook that
documentation is needed to request use of bereavement leave. All employees
other than the hispanic male was given bereavement without a request of
documentation – one of the women offered the documentation before the leave was
officially requested. However, the hispanic male was given the leave but then
was denied after the fact after he was asked and could not provide it and
therefore the request was denied. The employer says this is legal because the
subject of documentation is silent in the handbook. Also, there are 2 women who
are pregnant in the office 1 was provided accommodation to have her baby in
the office the first 6 months whereas the second was not given this option.
Again, the employer says it is legal because the subject is silent in the
handbook. Is this true? This seems like an employer can treat people
differently, bordering discrimination, all because the handbook doesn’t provide
a procedure to follow. It is understood a solution to the policy shouldn’t be
placed in the handbook but why not procedure of how to handle a situation so
that an employer can ensure that all employees are treated equally.

Asked on February 26, 2016 under Employment Labor Law, Florida

Answers:

SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 4 years ago | Contributor

Inconsistency can indeed present at least the appearance of discrimination, when people of different races, genders, etc. are treated differently--and a sufficiently strong appearance can result in liability for employment discrimination even if there was no actual discriminatory effect. It is advised to standardize on policies like how to request leave, documentation to provide if requesting an accommodation, etc. You can preserve the flexibility to change policies and act with discretion by stating prominently in the handbook (and having the employees sign and return a sheet saying) that "All employment is employment at will, and nothing in the handbook creates a guaranty or contract of employment. This handbook is informational only, and policies therein are subject to change." That way, you have a guide to ensure consistency, but are not locked in to it as if by a contract.


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