Stephen A. DiTullio, DeWitt Ross & Stevens, s.c.
There are numerous reasons for a veterinary practice to develop an Employee Handbook: (1) good communication tool; (2) helpful human resources management tool; (3) can provide legal defenses; and (4) can assist with legal defenses. If a business has at least 15 employees, then an Employee Handbook becomes even more necessary due to certain federal laws that apply. It is imperative that if a veterinary practice chooses to use an Employee Handbook, that it is carefully prepared. This article will review four important handbook issues. Later, this year we will present a second article addressing certain specific policies that should be considered for including in your veterinary practice's Employee Handbook.
A. Policies Can Be Construed As Contracts
Employment policies and handbooks must be written with great care. Wisconsin courts have held that under certain circumstances, policies contained in an Employee Handbook can give rise to a contract between the employer and the employee. Such a contract may be expressed by the specific terms of the policy, or it may be implied by the circumstances surrounding the declaration and distribution of the policy.
If a policy limits the circumstances under which an employee can be terminated or a policy uses language distinguishing between "probationary" and "permanent" employees, the policy may alter the employment-at-will relationship. Likewise, grievance procedures and seniority provisions can also give rise to possible contract claims.
B. Preserving The At-Will Relationship
In order to preserve the at-will relationship, policies and handbooks must be carefully written with clear disclaimers indicating that employment is at-will and that the employer reserves the right to alter, modify, amend, or eliminate any policy or handbook provision at any time, with or without notice. It is important that policies do not state that the employer is bound by the policy, because an employer's assertion that it is bound by a policy or a handbook could be sufficient in certain circumstances to alter the at-will relationship.