How Not to Write An Employee Handbook

timesThe Peters Law Group in Southern California is a small firm representing employees in discrimination, harassment and other litigation. They also publish the often excellent California Employee Rights Blog.

Over the weekend, they published an amazing post on Tribune Co.’s (owner of the L.A. Times, which also covered the story here) new employee manual, designed to get rid of “mind-numbing lawyer gobbeldygook” and replace it with “common sense.” But the manual,apparently written by a PR executive, is full of mistakes, and ripe for an enterprising employee-side lawyer to use against Tribune in a future discrimination and harassment case.

The many gaffes should remind every company doing business in this state that it needs meaningful, written employment policies, and those policies should be vetted by an employment lawyer who knows what she / he is doing, not by the company flack.

My favorite is the description in the manual of sexual harassment:

4.2 Working at Tribune means accepting that sometimes you might hear a word that you…might not use…experience an attitude you don’t share…[or] hear a joke that you might not consider funny.

4.3 This should be understood, should not be a surprise and is not considered harassment.

4.4 Harassment means being told that a raise, promotion or other benefit is dependent on you going on a date with your boss or some other similar activity.

Well, no, not actually. While harassment is sometimes “quid pro quo” harassment (the type described in section 4.4 above), the much more common type is “hostile environment” harassment, which apparently isn’t described anywhere in the manual. While I agree that use of “a word that you…might not use…[or] an attitude you don’t share…[or] joke that you might not consider funny” is not usually sexual harassment, when a sexually charged atmosphere is created by conduct which is severe or pervasive — including the use of words, jokes or expressed attitudes in some instances — an employer might well face liability for harassment. And a lawyer representing an employee making claims of this type against Tribune would love to cross-examine Tribune’s executives about language like this in an employee handbook or manual.

Bruce Nye