PITTSBURGH – At a hearing before federal labor regulators in December, company officials with Quicken Loans voiced publicly what many workers — let's be honest — think about those employee handbooks they receive.
"It was an afterthought at best after it was distributed," attorney Russell Linden reportedly told an administrative law judge at National Labor Relations Board offices in Detroit, according to the Detroit Free Press. Chief Marketing Officer Joanna Cline chimed in as well, telling the judge she put hers in a drawer and later threw it away.
The testimony was part of a case in which the Detroit-based lender was accused of violating both the First Amendment rights of employees and their protections under the National Labor Relations Act to discuss salary and benefits information, discussions that could lead to the formation of a labor union.
Regardless of the outcome, the Quicken case highlights the detriments of ignoring the handbook.
Jana Grimm, an employment lawyer at Pittsburgh-area Steptoe & Johnson, said employers and employees should consider handbooks valuable for a wide range of circumstances. Handbooks are designed to offer non-unionized employees accessible workplace guidelines, such as harassment and dress code policies; how to file a workplace complaint; and how to resolve disputes internally.
Because employees often must sign that they've read and understand the policies and procedures, the handbooks can also carry weight in cases of misconduct, she said.
"My clients are generally pretty savvy regarding what they want [in the handbook], and they go back into them periodically and do revisions," Grimm said.
Revisions might be necessary for many companies, since the labor board issued a report in March specifically addressing employee handbooks. The guidance attempted to clear up ambiguities regarding the board's policing of language, wrote Richard Griffin Jr., the labor board's general counsel.
Griffin said he believes most employers do not draft their employee handbooks with the object of restricting conduct protected by the National Labor Relations Act. The board would find a work rule unlawful, he said, if "employees would reasonably construe the rule's language" to prohibit activity that could lead to talks to form a union.
Grimm said determining what an employee may interpret from a rule is a challenge for employers. She suggests that her clients construct handbooks with specific language when outlining what's not allowed.
According to the general counsel's report, the labor board would likely find that employees have a right to discuss with others the terms of employment and their experience working for the company. The board also would likely strike down a rule requiring "respect" or prohibiting "making fun, denigrating or defaming" the employer.