By Nina Panugaling
The move from paper files to digital record-keeping platforms has transformed healthcare. Among other benefits, accurate, up-to-date patient information is easier for providers to access, which means greater efficiency and a better patient experience.
The transition to digital has impacted the employer/employee relationship, as well. In many settings, traditional employee handbooks have been set aside. Policies that were once consolidated into a single publication are now communicated through a collection of intranet articles, emails, and casual conversations.
Most practices use these less consistent communication methods, because on the surface, they seem simpler than creating a comprehensive guide such as an employee handbook, and keeping that guide current. However, there are two problems with this approach.
First, employees and members of your management team are missing clear direction for handling everyday issues. That increases the likelihood of perceived - or actual - differences in how policies are applied between employees.
Second, it's more difficult to validate that all employees have read and acknowledged standard company policies if they aren't kept in a central location. That gets risky when holding employees accountable, because there is no way to be sure they were aware of the policy when the violation occurred.
An employee handbook sets clear expectations for your team and reduces your risk of running afoul of employment law. Employment-related errors can be expensive. There are fines and penalties associated with violations of employment law, and your reputation may be harmed. An employee handbook reduces this risk, creating an impressive return on your investment.
These are five key policies to include:
Employment law protects your candidates and current team members from adverse employment action based on race, ethnicity, gender, disability, religion, and a host of other factors. Ensure that your handbook sets clear expectations that all employment decisions, including hiring, promoting, compensating, and managing performance, are made on the basis of job-related qualifications and individual performance against established expectations.
In addition, the law protects your team members from harassment based on those same factors. Use your employee handbook to make a firm statement that you will protect your employees from inappropriate working conditions, unwanted physical contact, and similar, whether the individuals responsible for the behavior are patients, members of management, professionals, vendors, or anyone else they may come in contact with as part of their day-to-day work responsibilities.
Finally, it is critical to let your employees know that they won't be treated differently or be subject to adverse employment action if they bring concerns forward in good faith. Mention that all concerns will be thoroughly investigated, and retaliation is not tolerated in your practice.
Keep in mind that some local and state governments have passed laws around these topics that differ from the national legislation. Check with your employment law advisor for more information.
After explaining your stance on discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, it's a good idea to review the options available for resolving concerns. Sometimes referred to as Issue Resolution Policies or Open Door Policies, this section should spell out the most effective way to get help when there is a problem at work.
Often, these policies recommend that employees speak with their immediate supervisor first, and if that isn't possible, to reach out to the next level of management. If the problem can't be resolved through the management structure, Human Resources is usually the next step. In larger settings, there may be an employee relations line or a compliance hotline available to report concerns. If you have such a resource available, mention it in this section of the employee handbook.
This is also a good place to point out any resources or benefits you offer for confidential support and counseling - for example an Employee Assistance Program.
No matter if you're in the dental, optometry, veterinarian, or other healthcare field, your employees may need to be absent from work for all sorts of reasons - and of course, you want to accommodate their needs to the best of your ability. However, you still have to staff your practice. Unplanned or excessive absences are disruptive to your patients and to the rest of your team.
Use your employee handbook to spell out expectations for arriving at work on-time for each scheduled shift, then go over the opportunities you offer for time off. Cover your policies for sick, vacation, and holiday pay, as well as any benefits you offer for bereavement, personal time, and similar. Keep in mind that some cities and states have passed laws guaranteeing paid sick time, so be sure to check with your employment law advisor before finalizing your policies.
Next, outline the options you offer for extended time away from work, such as leaves of absence. Under some circumstances, there are laws that speak to these types of requests. For example, if you have 50 or more employees, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) may allow eligible team members 12 weeks of unpaid time off to care for their own or a family's member's medical needs.
Finally, explain the process for requesting time off under these programs, so there is no misunderstanding.
While it isn't necessary to detail your specific compensation practices and all of the benefits you offer, the employee handbook is a good place to share your general compensation philosophy. You can mention that your practice is focused on compensating employees based on merit, if that's the case, or you can explain that you base compensation on seniority, experience, or other factors as appropriate.
This is also a good place to review policies and set ground rules for hourly employees who punch in and out when they work. Share details on when your pay periods open and close, as well as how often employees are paid.
You can avoid or reduce the potential for issues with the Department of Labor by establishing that you have a strict policy to pay employees for all hours worked. Specify that managers must never ask or require hourly employees to work "off-the-clock", and instruct employees that they must not work unpaid hours.
In many states, there is "at-will" employment, which means that you and your employees can terminate the professional relationship anytime, for any reason, as long as it's not for a discriminatory reason. However, because many states are employee-friendly, it is wise to establish and practice a performance management process that can be applied fairly and consistently. This protects your practice from potential wrongful termination claims.
Outline this process in your employee handbook, but include a note that based on the nature of the performance issue or policy violation, you reserve the right to bypass standard "steps" in the performance management process and move straight to separation when appropriate.
Constructing a comprehensive employee handbook is a major undertaking, but the investment of time and resources is well worth the effort. Leaders will have the confidence they need to apply policies consistently, and team members will know exactly what they can expect while working in your practice.
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Quick note: This is not to be taken as legal or HR advice. Since employment laws change over time and can vary by location and industry, consult a lawyer or HR expert for specific guidance. Learn about HR for Health's HR services.