For more years than I can remember we’ve been warning clients that an employee handbook can create unintended legal obligations. A case decided by the Supreme Judicial Court late last year (December 2008), serves as a reminder of this hazard. The court found that a sick day policy contained in a handbook bound the Mass Turnpike Authority to pay certain benefits.
The case attempts to leave the issue of whether a handbook creates a binding obligation open to a case-by-case analysis (especially when it comes to promises of employment to at-will employees, where it seems less likely that a handbook can get employers in trouble), but the fact remains that this is an area fraught with risk. Who even wants to go through the hassle and expense of defending one of these cases, when they are so easy to avoid? Placing a prominent “disclaimer” at the front of the book will do the job:
“This handbook is is presented as a matter of information only and its contents should not be interpreted as a contract or other form of obligation between the firm and any of its employees”
Rarely does the law make avoiding a legal headache so simple.
Link to the case: LeMaitre v. Massachusetts Turnpike Authority (SJC, 2008).