A heads up to SC employers with a Company Handbook

Discussion in 'Business Operations' started by devildog, Feb 13, 2003.

  1. devildog

    devildog LawnSite Senior Member
    from sc
    Messages: 270

    Employee handbooks are commonplace in most work environments today. Employers desire to treat their employees as “at-will” (i.e. terminable for any reason and at any time) and insert disclaimers and other language in their handbook to solidify the employment “at-will” relationship. Two recent South Carolina Court decisions, however, have whittled down the “employment at-will” doctrine leaving employers to ponder the following questions: Should an employer have an employee handbook?... How can an employer effectively communicate its policies yet avoid the creation of a contractual relationship between employer and employee? This article will review the most recent South Carolina cases addressing these issues and offer tips to employers for drafting and revising employee handbooks.

    Recent South Carolina case law
    In February 2002, the Supreme Court of South Carolina issued a decision, Connor v. City of Forest Acres, 348 S.C. 454 (2002), dealing with the formation of a binding contractual relationship between employer and employee. Plaintiff, Evelyn Connor, worked as a police dispatcher and sued her employer for breach of contract based upon language in her employee handbook. Ms. Connor had been discharged for performance issues. In her suit, she alleged that certain policies in the handbook (i.e. Code of Conduct and Discipline) contained mandatory, promissory language thereby creating a contractual relationship and altering her employment at-will status. Although the City argued the handbook did not create a binding contract, the Supreme Court reversed summary judgment for the employer and sent the case to the jury on the issue of whether a contract existed between the parties. In a similar case, Baril v. Aiken Regional Medical Centers, No. 3561 (S.C. Ct. App. 10/28/2002), the Court of Appeals held that the hospital may have created a contract of employment based upon mandatory, promissory terms set forth in its handbook policies (Progressive Discipline, Discharge and Grievance). In both of these cases, the employers had policies clearly confirming the employee’s at-will status and specifically disclaiming any contractual relationship.
    Where do we go from here?

    The Connor and Baril decisions left many employers wondering whether employee handbooks and employment at-will status can coexist in South Carolina. The challenge for employers today is creatively drafting a handbook that clearly establishes the policies and procedures of the company, while at the same time minimizes liability for creating a binding contract of employment. While some employers may be tempted to abolish their employee handbook in light of these cases, this practice would undoubtedly create confusion for employees and perhaps liability issues for employers. How would the employer clearly communicate its policies to employees? Would the employer experience a significant increase in claims or complaints by employees of inconsistent and unfair treatment without uniform, written policies applicable to all employees?
    In an attempt to avoid the results reached by these two cases, employers should take the following steps: (i) Avoid mandatory language and statements in the handbook; (ii) Avoid verbal and/or written promises to employees; (iii) Carefully draft disclaimer language and avoid the use of “form/template” handbooks; specifically tailor handbook policies to meet the needs of your business; (iv) Utilize an employee acknowledgment form to confirm receipt of the employee handbook; (v) Avoid generalized promises of fair treatment or other similar phrases that imply employees can be terminated only for cause; (vi) Consider revising the Discipline and Termination Policy and carefully evaluate the most appropriate policy for your work environment.

    This information was provided to me by Melissa Azallion, a lawyer here in SC.

    Additional detail are provide below:

    Employment-at-will passes House
    H.3448 <http://www.scstatehouse.net/115_2003-2004/bills/3448.htm> a Business Agenda bill that would ensure that employment-at-will is preserved as the law of South Carolina, passed the House this week and a similar bill is gaining momentum in the Senate. After a short debate Tuesday, the House bill received second reading approval 102-9. It received routine third reading approval Wednesday.

    Rep. Harry Cato, chairman of House LCI, told the House that the bill is fair to both employees and employers because it encourages communications in the workplace.

    Recent state court decisions have eroded South Carolina's
    employment-at-will doctrine, which has been and continues to be
    challenged in the courts by plaintiffs who allege exceptions either
    under contract or public policy theory.

    Traditionally, either the employer or the employee has had the ability to end an at-will employment relationship at any time and for any reason.

    This bill, described as one of the most important bills of this session, will codify employment-at-will into the South Carolina Code of Laws and undo many of the court's erosions of a key public policy -- including a state Supreme Court ruling that found an employer created a contract by giving workers an employee handbook.

    "The handbook is the procedure, but it is not a contract," Cato said as he explained the bill.

    Voting against the bill in the House were Reps. Breeland, Cobb-Hunter, M. Hines, Hosey, Lloyd, Mack, Moody-Lawrence, Rutherford and Weeks.

    Rep. Cobb-Hunter congratulated the committee on "taking a terrible bill and making it a bad bill." Chairman Cato said, "Thanks."

    The bill was referred to Senate LCI Wednesday. Earlier Wednesday, a subcommittee of Senate LCI approved S.290
    <http://www.scstatehouse.net/115_2003_2004/bills/290.htm> -- the Senate version of the employment-at-will bill. The subcommittee members are Sen. O'Dell, chairman, Sen. McConnell, Sen. Ford and Sen. Leatherman. All but Sen. Ford voted for the bill.

    With Regards... devildog
  2. HBFOXJr

    HBFOXJr LawnSite Bronze Member
    Messages: 1,712

    So the jist of this is, don't have grievance and discipline stuff in there. Simply this is the way it is done here. If you violate these rules you may be terminated with out notice.

    I have new employees sign for the handbook, uniforms I loan them and anything else that need permanent tracking or remembering. I document every reprimand given for a violation. The reprimands are hand written by me in carbon duplicate. One is given to the employee and one put in there file.
  3. CSRA Landscaping

    CSRA Landscaping LawnSite Bronze Member
    Messages: 1,232

    How timely that I came across this now... I'm just now putting together a rough draft of a handbook, which started out as a one-page list of general guidelines and sort of ... mushroomed.

    Any new info. on this?
  4. devildog

    devildog LawnSite Senior Member
    from sc
    Messages: 270

    Jeff, Not much new has happened. The House introduced H3448 that ratified our current at will employment status. It was ratified upon third vote and sent to the Senate Committee on labor in February. The Senate Committee has held meetings on both documents, to the end of the past legislative session. Its likely we will not know anything more of what will become of both until the Senate Committee Chair on Labor sets the agenda for the session that begins in January. With regards... devildog
  5. CSRA Landscaping

    CSRA Landscaping LawnSite Bronze Member
    Messages: 1,232

    OK, I appreciate the update. I don't see how in the world you find the time to keep abreast of this sort of thing! Hope business is well for you this time of year.
  6. morturf

    morturf LawnSite Senior Member
    from midwest
    Messages: 476

    So if I work for you and I quit at the height of the mowing season can u sue me for breaking the contract?? This would seem to be a 2 way street that they are opening here. Hmmm
  7. Team Gopher

    Team Gopher LawnSite Platinum Member
    from -
    Messages: 4,040

    Great find Devildog!

    Here is another post dealing with employee handbooks that may be helpful.

    employee handbook

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