Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Do you know? Handbook disclaimers

Yesterday, I noted that employees often feign ignorance of employee handbooks. Here’s a textbook example.

In Steadman v. Sterilite Corp. (Ohio Ct. App. 7/19/10) [pdf], the employer’s handbook contained the following language:
Sterilite is an “at will” employer in that your employment may be terminated with or without cause and with or without notice at any time at the option of either you or Sterilite, except as otherwise provided by law…. No statement or promise by a supervisor, manager or department head, either verbal or written, may be interpreted as a change in policy nor will it constitute an employment agreement with any employee.
Additionally, the employee signed the following acknowledgement form upon receipt of the handbook:
I understand that this handbook is not a contract of employment, express or implied, between Sterilite and me and that I should not view it as such, or a
guarantee of employment for any specific duration. 
I further understand that no manager or representative of Sterilite, other than the president, has the authority to enter into any agreement guaranteeing employment for any specific period of time. I also understand that any such agreement, if made, shall not be valid or enforceable unless it is in a formal written agreement signed by both the president and me.
Based on this language, the Court affirmed the dismissal of the employee’s claims, which were premised on the handbook constituting a contact of employment:
As a general rule in Ohio, employee handbooks do not constitute an employment contract. The handbook is simply a unilateral statement of rules and policies creating no obligations or rights…. [A]n employee handbook that expressly disclaimed any employment contract could not be characterized as an employment contract.
Reviews of disclaimers should be part of any handbook audit. They will likely make the difference between whether your handbook is a series of aphoristic aspirations and guidelines, or a policy manual that binds your conduct as a contract between your business and your employees.