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    Why it's a good time to create or revamp your employee handbook

    The employee handbook is the standard by which a clinical practice operates, best systems are outlined, and employee rights and conduct are described. It may not be the immediate priority as a physician opens a new practice or as an established physician or group oversees a practice year to year. However, with the approach of a new year, it is an ideal time to review the old handbook or finally create one if it does not yet exist.

    Creating or revamping your employee handbook is a task made easier with the help of an expert. Although the employee handbook can be created by the physician, it requires a current and extensive knowledge of labor law, employee rights, and best practices. By enlisting the help of an advisor, with limited effort on your part, a thorough handbook can be created, tailor made to your practice for a relatively nominal cost. Various sources can serve as an expert to usher you through this process, including an employment lawyer, human resources expert, or a practice consultant.

    In selecting an advisor for the creation of an employee handbook, it is important to ask a few questions:  

    • How many years of experience do he and/or she have in constructing employee handbooks? 
    • Have they performed this for clients of similar business size or industry? 
    • How will the handbook be tailor-made to the practice? 
    • What is the fee schedule? 
    • Will the fee include consultation and review of the materials? 
    • How often will they update the employee handbook and at what cost? 
    • Will they help in explaining it to your staff members upon completion? 
    • Will they provide supplementary documents at no additional cost?

    The process for creating your handbook

    The process for constructing an employee handbook is straightforward and efficient with the use of a “consultant”.  Having been through the process several times myself, there is a common method for extracting information specific to your practice and integrating this into the finalized handbook. Typically, you will be provided with a questionnaire that takes approximately an hour or so to fill out. This will be worked into a handbook “framework” thereby customizing your document. 

    The questionnaire covers a variety of topics around major themes of the handbook: policies, practices, and benefits.  Information gained from the questionnaire ranges from organizational information, company standards and procedures, operational standards, hourly pay and wages, benefits and services, standards of conduct, and employee safety. If some topics covered have not been initiated by a clinic practice, the creation of the handbook becomes an excellent vehicle in which to start.

    Many sections of the employee handbook relating to employee rights and responsibilities vary by geographic location and local and state jurisdiction. Other areas, however, are partially or totally at the clinic leadership’s discretion. Educational opportunities, holiday schedules, timekeeping, bereavement leave are in many instances benefits offered by the employer and variable depending on practice preferences. 

    Standards of conduct are another important area to highlight with employees. Prohibited conduct, dress code, telephone and internet use, and policies on video surveillance protect the safety of our patients and help shape the culture of the practice. Making this clear from the onset of employment sets the bar for employee conduct. Similarly, this clear set of accepted policies provides substantial protection for practices in dealing with employee suspension or termination with cause.

    Several supplementary documents were particularly helpful in my last round of updating the employee handbook and are worth sharing with others. Intellectual property and trade secrets of a well-functioning practice should be protected.  For that reason, all employees AND visitors to my practice sign a non-disclosure agreement. Beyond the standard employee acknowledgement that all staff sign upon reviewing the employee handbook, I also have employees sign an arbitration agreement and acknowledgement. This provides another layer of protection in the event of frivolous claims from ex-employees. Other agreement forms to consider are substance abuse and drug-free workplace policies, systems use policies, meal break waiver agreements, and HIPAA compliance agreements.

    The employee handbook should be reviewed annually and updated for changes in employment law and growth of the practice. Extra credit goes to practices that review the employee handbook with staff annually and emphasize regularly at staff meetings the best practices put forth in the handbook.

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    Melanie D. Palm, M.D., M.B.A.
    Melanie D. Palm, M.D., is director of Art of Skin MD in Solana Beach, Calif. Visit her at http://www.artofskinmd.com

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