Most employers strive to maintain a collegial and yet professional environment in their office, one where workers can be both comfortable and productive. However, certain individual and even some collegial behaviors can negatively affect the workplace.
Finding ways to prevent those behaviors from becoming more than just a distraction from their business goals can be a struggle for many small business owners. The solution is to have sound employee policies in place from Day 1 that set the standard and tone for how a business owner wants their business environment to be.
In the first installment, we will focus on five policies that help employers legally regulate appropriate attire, personal relationships between employees, drug and alcohol use, and other activities that may interfere with a stable work environment. These policies can be used individually and distributed to each employee, or they can be used as a group of policies that are included in the business’ Employee Handbook. The handbook should be signed by every new employee, and it should outline—among other important company information—company policies, job requirements and employee benefits.
1. Implementing a Dress Code
As an employer, you have the right to implement an Appearance and Dress Code Policy at your own discretion as long as the requirements do not conflict with anti-discrimination laws. Oftentimes stricter dress policies are implemented in situations where the employees interact frequently with the public, although many companies simply choose to implement a dress code in order to maintain office safety, privacy and productivity.
It’s important that employers apply the dress code carefully in order to avoid violating the rights of a group protected under state and federal anti-discrimination laws. The following are several important forms of discrimination (with examples) to keep in mind:
- Religious: Sometimes an employee’s religious beliefs require certain apparel that contradicts with the dress code. In most cases, their rights should be upheld, except in the case of workplace safety (e.g.: wearing a helmet). In this case, do your best to explain your legal requirement to protect their safety; if this does not work, try to place the employee in another position.
- Racial: Some clothing and grooming requirements may unevenly impact members of certain races and ethnicities. For example, no-beard policies have been challenged in some cases because it has been shown that shaving exacerbates a skin condition common among black men.
- Gender: If you create general dress policies that apply to all employees, they must be enforced consistently. For example, you cannot have a policy banning earrings then allow women to wear them but not men. On the federal level, however, you may choose to specify different standards for men and women as long as none of the policies give significant employment advantages to either sex.
- Sexual Harassment: If you communicate your dress code inappropriately, it may constitute sexual harassment. For example, if you circulate an email among management employees that names specific employees who wore inappropriate attire (along with any offensive jokes in relation to the content of the email) this would create a hostile work environment.
2. Preventing Harassment
Many handbooks include a harassment policy that identifies unacceptable sexual, racist and other forms of harassment; it should also describe the company’s procedure for filing complaints. Following these procedures can help prevent harassment amongst employees and limit liability for harassment and discrimination litigation.
3. Employee Fraternization
Strong employee relationships can help increase efficiency, but close quarters can also lead to the development of romantic relationships. A Fraternization Policy can help mitigate the risks associated with relationships that may disrupt the workplace, lead to sexual-harassment claims or lower morale due to a manager showing favoritism or flirting with a lower-level employee.
An employer obviously cannot prevent romantic relationships from developing, but a Fraternization Policy can outline specific relationships that may pose a conflict of interest or risk to the company. It may also ask that employees who engage in romantic relationships report it to their supervisor.
Read more about the limits and benefits of a fraternization policy here.
4. Drug and Alcohol Policies and Testing
Most employers strive for a safe, drug- and alcohol-free work environment and choose to implement a Drug and Alcohol Policy to establish guidelines regarding employee possession and consumption of these substances.
Some employers choose to drug test candidates before hiring. They are generally allowed to do so as long as they:
- Make the test clear on the job application or posting.
- Offer employment to the individual that's contingent on their passage of the test.
- Test all candidates equally through a state-certified laboratory.
To add an extra layer of liability protection, you may even have candidates sign a Pre-Employment Drug and Alcohol Testing Consent Form before performing the drug test.
Implementing drug tests on current employees can be more difficult, and in many states, it can only be done if the job carries a significant risk of injury or if the employer has good reason to believe the employee is using drugs. Be sure to consult with a legal professional in your state to be sure your company’s drug-testing policies comply to state and local laws.
5. Employees Who Smoke
Smokers are not protected from employment discrimination on a federal level, but twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have labeled smokers as a protected class. While you cannot discriminate on the basis of smoking in many states, a Smoking Policy can set restrictions regarding where employees can smoke in order to protect the health of other employees.
For those who violate company rules, you may consider establishing an Employee Discipline Policy that breaks down the procedures for disciplining workers who violate company policy. Keep a record of your disciplinary actions and be consistent in enforcing policies equally amongst employees. However, be careful not to implement a discipline policy that puts your “at-will” employment policy at risk.
For five more Key Workplace Policies Every Employer Should Know, click here. Part 2 of this article series covers policies that help employers manage computer, phone and internet use so that technology can improve workplace productivity rather than distract employees.
Written by Rochelle Bailis