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Don’t Let Your Employee Handbook Become A Binding Contract


As a general rule, it is a good idea to create and have an employee handbook and have employees agree to that handbook. The employee handbook clarifies everyone’s rights and responsibilities, and can protect you in the event an employee alleges that they were let go without reason.

However, Florida is an at-will employment state—that means you can fire an employee whenever you want, for whatever reason you want. The two exceptions to this rule are (1) if the firing violates a federal law, such as anti-discrimination laws, or (2) if there is an employment contract.

Contract or Not?

A conflict often arises when employees have no employment contract—meaning you can fire them at will—and situations where the employee has signed an employee handbook.

The employee will often try to argue that the employee handbook or manual is a contract, and thus, the employer lost the right to fire the employee for just any reason. The employee will argue the employer has to specifically show that there was a violation of the employee handbook.

So how can you circulate an employee handbook, while also not losing your right to fire employees at will without liability? In other words—how do you keep your employee handbook from being interpreted as an employee contract?

Look at the Handbook

The first and easiest way is just to say in the handbook that it is not a contract and that it confers no contractual or legal rights on the employee. The handbook should specifically say that the employee remains an at-will employee.

Additionally, the handbook should say that it can be modified any time, for any reason, by the employer. This makes it different from a contract, which can’t be altered or amended at will by either party after it is agreed to.

You also may want to avoid terms that are so definite that they can be construed to confer tangible, enforceable rights. For example, saying that an employee must work “hours needed to finish the job as determined by the employer” may be OK. Saying the employee must work “40 hours every week, starting no earlier than 8am and ending no later than 7pm,” may be so definite that it transforms the handbook into a contract.

You should avoid putting things in the employee handbook that you may want to enforce the way you would a contract. For example, things like non-compete agreements or non-solicitation agreements can be mentioned in the manual—but the details should also be signed separately in a separate document by the employee.

Terms May Still be Enforceable

Note that even if your handbook does not alter your right to fire an employee when you want, the terms of the handbook, if definitive enough, can still confer legally enforceable legal rights. So, for example, if the manual says that an employee will get a bonus for every 40 sales, you will have to give that bonus.

Call the West Palm Beach employment law attorneys at Pike & Lustig today for help keeping your business safe from lawsuits or liability.

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