Labor and Employment

Understanding Your Employee Handbook

By Sachi Barreiro, Attorney, University of San Francisco School of Law
Find out what’s in your employee handbook and how it can help you.

On your first day at a new job, you’ll probably receive some new hire paperwork from your employer—for example, forms asking you to verify your authorization to work in the U.S. or to indicate your tax withholdings. These days, many employers include another sizeable document in new hire packets: an employee handbook. The employee handbook is your guide to your company’s policies on everything from paychecks to employee discipline to vacation and sick leave.

What’s in the Employee Handbook?

The provisions in an employee handbook will vary depending on several factors, including your employer’s size, industry, and culture. Some policies are required by law—federal, state, or even local (your city or county)—and apply only to employers of a certain size. For example, employers with 50 or more employees must provide eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of for family and medical leave each year. Other policies are universal; almost all employers will have a discrimination and harassment policy, for example.

Most employee handbooks will address issues such as:

  • work hours, meal and rest breaks, and overtime
  • attendance and tardiness
  • compensation and benefits (such as health care or a 401k)
  • dress and grooming
  • misconduct and employee discipline
  • time off from work (for example, vacation, sick leave, or parental leave)
  • discrimination and harassment
  • drug and alcohol abuse
  • monitoring of company computers, phones, and other equipment
  • social media use
  • handling confidential company information, and
  • workplace safety.

Should I Sign the Employee Handbook?

Employers will often ask employees to acknowledge, in writing, that they received a copy of the employee handbook. You have the right to refuse to sign, but there’s a catch: Your employer can refuse to hire you unless you sign the handbook acknowledgement. Because of this, employees generally have little bargaining power when it comes to the employee handbook.

Does the Employee Handbook Give Me Any Rights?

Even if you can’t negotiate the policies in your employee handbook, you still have some rights.

Handbook Policies Can’t Violate the Law

At the very least, your employer’s policies cannot violate federal, state, or local law. For example, federal law requires employers to pay employees time-and-a-half when they work more than 40 hours per week. Your employer therefore cannot have an overtime policy that pays you time-and-a-half only when you work more than 60 hours per week. Some states have a daily overtime standard as well. For example, a California employer must have an overtime policy that pays employees time-and-half when they work more than eight hours in a day.

Handbook policies might also violate laws against employment discrimination. This might happen, for instance, when a policy has discriminating consequences for protected groups, such as women or employees with disabilities. For example, suppose a policy in your employee handbook make employees ineligible for promotion if they take off four or more consecutive weeks during the year. This could negatively impact women who take time off due to pregnancy or employees who need time off work due to a disability. A policy like this could violate antidiscrimination laws and leave laws that grant time off for pregnancy or disability. (To learn more, see our employment discrimination FAQ.)

You Might Be Entitled To an Exception

In some cases, employers must make exceptions to their normal policies for certain employees. For instance, federal antidiscrimination laws require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities or reasonable accommodations for employees with certain religious beliefs. If your employer’s dress code prohibits hats or other headwear—but your religion requires you to wear a turban—your employer likely must make an exception for you. Likewise, if you need to miss work occasionally because of a disability—your employer’s “three strikes” attendance policy might not apply to you.

Your Employer’s Policies Might Create a Contract

Sometimes, your employer’s policies might create legal contracts that give you certain rights. The default rule in almost all states is that employees work at will, meaning that employers can fire them at any time, for any reason that’s not illegal. However, your employer can change the rule by making promises to employees in the handbook.

This issue often comes up in the context of rigid disciplinary policies. For example, suppose your handbook’s discipline policy says that all employees will receive a verbal and written warning before being fired. In some states, this language would alter at-will employment and create a legally binding promise not to fire you without first giving you the required warnings. (To learn more, see our article on how and when employment contracts are created.)

Whether or not your employee handbook creates a legally binding contract is complicated and depends on state law. If you believe you were fired in violation of a handbook policy, contact an employment lawyer. A lawyer can tell you whether you have a wrongful termination case.
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