Avoid Getting Burnt: Tips for Updating Your Restaurant’s Employee Handbook

Who has the time (or the money) to put together an employee handbook when you have a busy restaurant to run? Unfortunately, many restaurants skip this step, and doing so can be a legal risk. 

Just imagine your restaurant has been sued for race discrimination. You fired an employee because of her excessive absenteeism. You did not treat her any differently than others – but she claims you fired her because of her race.

If you don’t have a handbook with a policy outlining your attendance and disciplinary policies, you and your legal counsel will end up scrambling around (and running up legal fees) trying to prove the reason for her termination had nothing to do with her race. With a well-written handbook, however, your restaurant could point to the attendance policy and its consistent application along with the anti-discrimination policy prohibiting such behavior. Though it may not prevent you from facing a lawsuit, it will certainly enable your business to better manage employee relations and be in a defensible position to shutdown costly litigation. 

Are Handbooks Even Necessary for Restaurants? 

You bet. As explained above, when drafted properly, handbooks are guidelines on your restaurant’s expectations, policies and benefits. It can be the cornerstone of your defense when an employee sues your restaurant for discrimination or other employment claims. Look at it this way – the business likely has a set of policies in some form anyway. Might as well put them in one central place instead of scattering them on a bulletin board.


We Have a Handbook Around Here Somewhere…

Let’s face it – if you have an employee handbook, it is likely out of date, even if it has been updated in the past few years. Labor and employment laws have undergone, and continue to undergo, significant change. As a result, restaurants should periodically review and revise their handbooks to ensure that the policies and practices comply with applicable laws. After revising the handbook, distributing the revised version and having employees sign acknowledgment of receipts provides employers with proof employees have knowledge of the policies. 

So What Do I Include in an Employee Handbook? 

Handbooks are not one-size-fits-all. Policies that may be imperative for some industries are unimportant in others. Below are items that are recommended for all employment handbooks and are important for the hospitality industry. 

  • Equal Employment Opportunity: States and municipalities continue to expand equal employment opportunity protections; many state laws provide varying protections to classes of employees not covered under federal law. For example, California and New York have passed laws that protect employees from discrimination based on natural hairstyles and hair textures. Various other states and localities have special protections for pregnant workers. Restaurants should periodically review these policies to ensure compliance.
  • Anti-Discrimination Policies: A well-written anti-discrimination policy can provide employees expectations of the appropriate standard of conduct and what steps to take in the event they need to report prohibited conduct. 
  • Anti-Harassment Policies: Restaurants should also have a policy that defines unlawful harassment (based on sex, race, disability and all other protected categories), provides a method for employees to complain about harassment, and provides assurances that such complaints will be investigated and remedied.
  • Leave Policies: Numerous states have passed (and continue to) expansive paid leave laws that require businesses to provide paid leave for employees’ own or others’ health and safety needs. These laws often require, among other things, that employers publish employees’ rights and remedies under the paid sick leave laws in their company handbooks, and the laws often carry civil penalties for noncompliance. For these reasons, restaurants affected by these laws should be creating or revising paid sick leave policies to comply. 
  • Drug and Alcohol Policy: States and localities have recently passed laws that ban e-cigarettes in various public and private places. Businesses affected by these laws or those who wish to include regulation of e-cigarettes in their drug and alcohol policies should review such policies to ensure that it is clearly communicated to employees that e-cigarettes use at work is prohibited.  Likewise, as medical and recreational marijuana legislation continues to evolve and confusion among employees rises, restaurants should consider clarifying their drug and alcohol policies to specifically address medical and recreational marijuana use. 
  • Weapons in the Workplace: Restaurant owners who wish to prohibit concealed and open firearms in the workplace should include a policy in their handbooks that clearly states that firearms are prohibited in the workplace. Keep in mind, however, that some states permit employees to store lawfully possessed firearms and ammunition in their vehicles when parked in an employer’s parking lot.
  • Acceptable Behavior: Regardless if you are a fine dining restaurant or a fast-food chain, as an employer, you can expect a certain level of professionalism from your employees. To this end, employers may want to outline acceptable and unacceptable behaviors tailored specifically to your establishment (i.e., dress code, cell phone use or attendance). This type of policy gives employees a guideline of what is expected from them and provides management a tool in which to hold everyone accountable for their behavior. 
  • Solicitation and Distribution: Restaurants should also have policies regulating the solicitation of employees during working time and the distribution of pamphlets and flyers in work areas. This policy will enable a restaurant owner to manage when solicitation may occur and what is distributed to employees. This type of policy is essential to maintain order in the workplace.


Anything Else? 

These are just some key policies that merit attention, but of course, this list is non-exhaustive. Whether your restaurant is rolling out a new or revised handbook in hard copy or electronic format, remember that less is more. An 80-page handbook usually can be 40-pages. Distributing an employee handbook is just the first step in building a defense for your business. Employers should continue to update and provide regular training to management to reduce your businesses’ risk of a damaging legal claim.