Mastering a changing world: 4 things your employee handbook should have in advance of a crisis

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As we all experience the COVID-19 crisis, the need for an employee handbook has never been clearer. A well-constructed manual provides structure to practice operations, even in uncertain times. Your hanndbook establishes ground rules that facilitate your ability to educate, guide, and treat your staff fairly and with dignity. When policies and procedures are consistently followed, a handbook also helps to legally protect your practice and ensure your staff has a solid foundation for all working conditions that may arise.

Here are four essential employee handbook policies that your hospital needs in order to be prepared in advance of a crisis.

1. Facility-shutdown policies

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many practices are changing facility hours or may be entirely shut down. It is crucial to have policies in place for these kinds of unforeseeable conditions and to let your staff know ahead of time how such situations will be handled. For example, be sure to advise employees about compensation policies regarding work missed due to facility shutdown or severe weather. The practice should also have a disaster-preparedness plan in place, including posting evacuation plans for the hospital. It is wise to include details in the plans that ensure that patient evacuation never compromises human safety and outline how business continuation will occur in the event of temporary work stoppages.

2. Workplace safety

As an employer, you are responsible for providing a safe, healthy environment that complies with all state and federal laws and regulations, and your handbook should include a general safety policy. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us, hospitals need to establish specific, detailed plans for occupational safety (including but not limited to personal protective equipment, sanitation, noise exposure, and hazardous materials) and evacuation or emergency-preparedness plans in the event of an emergency. For example, you may want to update your current handbook to allow for practice operation policies under a public health crisis, making allowances for telehealth and social distancing care along with any adaptations and changes to your existing sanitation protocols that reflect practicing while preventing the spread of a virus.

3. Sick leave

Employers are advised to review state and local laws prior to finalizing a sick leave policy. A sick leave policy needs to clarify who is eligible, how long employees must work before earning sick leave, how many sick days can be earned per year, what sick leave can be used for, and what happens to unused sick time. You may want to consider adding new language that allows for updates and changes to these policies, considering COVID-19 and the new Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act, including updated payroll codes for tracking emergency sick leave time off or items needed for sick leave documentation. We also recommend that you consult with your existing payroll companies to ensure you are maximizing your tax credits.

4. Work schedules

Establishing clear expectations of work schedules upon hiring and during the onboarding period of employment helps avoid employer and employee frustrations that can cause early termination. Equally important is to have a policy in place for communicating updates to the existing work schedule that allows for unexpected changes. It is essential to put out addendums to your existing employee handbook during times of crisis to be sure your team has everything they need to cope with any changes in policies. We also recommend amending or adding a work-from-home policy to your handbook, if applicable for your practice. Be sure to include any details on who is eligible, along with how employees should be available while at home and how they can track their work.

Find more information and tips in the new fourth edition of the AAHA Guide to Creating an Employee Handbook, edited by Amanda L. Donnelly, DVM, MBA; Charlotte Lacroix, DVM, JD; and Kellie G. Olah, SPHR, SHRM-CP.

Amanda L. Donnelly, DVM, MBA, is a speaker, consultant, and author with more than 30 years of experience in the veterinary profession. She is a second-generation veterinarian who combines her practice experience and business expertise to help veterinarians communicate better with their teams and clients. Donnelly is the author of 101 Practice Management Questions Answered and a contributing author for Blackwell’s Five-Minute Veterinary Practice Management Consult and writes the Talk the Talk communication column for Today’s Veterinary Business. Well known as a dynamic speaker, Donnelly has twice been named Practice Management Speaker of the Year for the VMX Conference.

Kellie G. Olah, SPHR, SHRM-CP, is a nationally certified senior professional in human resources (SPHR) and serves as the human resource consultant for Veterinary Business Advisors, Inc. She has a combined 15 years of experience in the legal and human resource fields, and previously served as the head of human resources for a large technology company. Olah provides consulting services along the full spectrum of human resource administrative functions, covering the entire employee lifecycle.