Are You and Your Staff on the Same Page?

Buy a new car, and they give you an owner’s manual. Get drafted into the NBA, and you’re handed a playbook. Get hired as a bartender or food server, though, and all you’ll likely get are a few training shifts and a printout of house policies. In today’s litigious society, that’s far from adequate.

The fact is, being an employer is fraught with legal liability. Make a mistake, and you could find yourself on the wrong end of a civil lawsuit or in front of the National Labor Relations Board, where nine out of 10 employees leave victorious. Suits for wrongful discharge, sexual harassment and racial discrimination are among the most prevalent employment-related litigation with judgments averaging in the six-figure range.

The first line of legal defense is a comprehensive, well-structured employee handbook, one that clearly defines the employees’ job descriptions, areas of responsibilities and the operation’s policies and procedures. Without it, holding employees legally accountable for their actions is practically impossible.

Drafting an employee handbook is similar to creating an employment contract, which is how courts typically view these documents. And like a contract, employees typically are asked to sign a statement that they have received the handbook, read it thoroughly and agree to abide by all of its provisions. [Excellent reference material on drafting an employee handbook is available from the National Restaurant Association and the American Hotel and Motel Association.]

The following suggestions are intended as general guidelines only. Employment laws and rights vary by state, and it’s incumbent upon employers to ensure that company policies and practices conform to state and federal laws. An attorney who specializes in employment law should review the handbook before it’s distributed to the staff.

Where to Start

While an employee handbook need not be filled with legalese, it does need to deal with each item in a thorough and comprehensive manner. For example, it’s not enough to state that sexual harassment on the job will not be tolerated. Define specifically what actions constitute sexual harassment. Employees should be advised as to what course of action they can follow if sexually harassed by a customer, another employee, a supervisor or the owner. How they should respond will differ with each situation. You need also detail what disciplinary actions will be taken in the event of sexual harassment.

The first section of an employee handbook is referred to as the “new-hire packet.” It contains material helpful to new employees, including a statement describing the operation’s concept, a brief history of the company and specific information about the business, such as the names of the owner(s) and managers, operating hours, happy hour information, credit cards accepted, etc.

The new-hire packet also should contain a job description for each position, uniform specifications for all positions, a current copy of the menu, the bar’s price lists and an explanation of all applicable kitchen and bar abbreviations. To emphasize its importance, the operation’s policies and procedures concerning the service of alcohol should be covered in the first section for every employee, regardless of position, to read and be familiar with. Include a policy statement regarding the service of alcohol to minors or someone visibly intoxicated and require employees to sign the statement affirming their intentions to uphold the policy.

The second section of the handbook covers the operation’s policies and procedures beginning with the conditions of employment. For example, employment usually is considered an “at will” relationship, meaning that it is for an indefinite period of time and that either the employee or you may terminate the relationship with or without cause, without previous notice and without liability. You also should state if your business is an equal opportunity employer.

Every on-premise operation has general policies, such as how soon before a shift an employee can clock in, how employees are to report their tipped income, what constitutes full-time employment, what policies govern overtime and how much advance notice is required if an employee is sick and cannot cover a shift.

Do you allow your employees to frequent your establishment when they’re not on duty? Do you permit smoking or eating on duty? Drinking alcohol? When can employees give customers a complimentary drink? Do you allow co-worker dating? On-the-job gambling?

After stating in the handbook how these situations and others are to be handled, you need to detail what actions the business will take if employees fail to comply. You must explain your company’s disciplinary policies clearly. Moreover, you should list what you consider grounds for verbal reprimands or written warnings and what their cumulative effects will be. What do you consider gross misconduct? What consequences can someone abusing alcohol or drugs on the job expect? What do you consider grounds for immediate termination?

Better Employee Relations

The employee handbook has the potential for becoming more than just a legal document delineating operational policies and procedures. It presents a singular opportunity to provide employees with insight into what is expected of them as professionals, and how they can best achieve those expectations.

In the final section of the book, give your staff an understanding of what their responsibilities are as employees of the company. For example, employees generally are expected to respect the confidentiality of company matters. They may be privy to private matters regarding the company that are considered confidential. Employees also are expected to help maintain a safe working environment and report any safety-related information to management.

Is it your company’s policy to periodically evaluate employee performance? If so, what factors will you use to assess their on-the-job effectiveness? Considerations for promotion and salary increases, such as job performance, work attitude, attendance record, team compatibility and safety record should be explained fully.

Anything you believe is important for your staff to know regarding their jobs should be covered to the degree you will hold them responsible. If providing your customers with exemplary service is crucial to your operation’s success, that should be stated clearly and service guidelines along with training should be provided.

Don’t presume your employees know or understand anything regarding the operation of your business. Inevitably the presumption will wind up costing you. If it’s important, write it down. Then personally go over the material with your employees and hold them accountable for what it says. You’ll reduce the risk of misunderstanding and ultimately develop a more professional, cohesive staff.


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