If My Employees Didn’t Read the Employee Handbook, Am I Still Legally Bound?

Unless you sit in a room with an employee who is required to read the entire employee handbook aloud, you can never be sure if an employee has read the handbook. A South Carolina labor and employment lawyer will probably tell you that this procedure would be impractical. Instead, most employers require employees to sign an acknowledgment that they have read the handbook and received a copy of the handbook, which covers the employer even if the employee does not read the handbook. Courts will likely rule with the employer if the employee claims he or she signed the acknowledgment without reading the handbook.

South Carolina is an At-Will Work State

On the other hand, an employer is typically bound to the policies and procedures in the handbook because the employer presented the handbook to employees stating the handbook contains policies and procedures used by the company in various situations. This would be the case even if the employee did not read the handbook.

Because South Carolina is an “at will” work state, employers must include statutorily mandated language in the front of a handbook notifying the employee of the “at will” employer-employee relationship. An employee is required to sign the acknowledgment. Failing to include the “at will” acknowledgment pursuant to the statutory requirements could create an unintended employment contract, which could make it difficult for an employee to terminate the employee without cause or “at will.”

Employees Who Refuse to Sign an Acknowledgment

Employers cannot force employees to sign an acknowledgment in an employee handbook.  If an employee refuses to sign an acknowledgment for the handbook, the employer can refuse to hire the employee. An employer may have the employee write “refuse to sign” instead of signing the handbook or have a representative write “employee refused to sign an acknowledgment.”

However, many employers view the refusal to sign an acknowledgment of an employee handbook as a negative indication of how the employee may perform or fit in with the company, so they do not hire a person who refuses to sign an acknowledgment of the handbook.

What Should a Handbook Acknowledgment Include?

The “at will” acknowledgment is separate from an acknowledgment that the employee read and accepts the terms and policies contained in the handbook. A handbook acknowledgment should include terms such as:

  • The handbook does not create a legal document or an employment contract. This language may be taken from the at-will acknowledgment in the front of the handbook.
  • An acknowledgment that the employee has received a copy of the handbook; has read the handbook; and, understands the information contained in the handbook. A clause should also be added that states the employee acknowledges it is his or her responsibility to read the entire handbook.
  • The version number and the effective date of the handbook.
  • A statement explaining that the policies and procedures contained in the handbook are subject to change.
  • A statement that the acknowledgment will be retained in the employee’s file.
  • A place for the employee to print his or her name, add a signature, and date the signature.

It is also wise to develop a procedure for distributing updates to the employee handbook and seeking written acknowledgment from employees of the changes to the handbook.

Consult a South Carolina Labor and Employment Lawyer for Help with Your Employee Handbooks

Employment law can be difficult to understand. Even though the state is an “at will” work state, employers should be careful when preparing employee handbooks. Using a template or a DIY employee handbook can create costly and time-consuming legal problems in the future. Schedule a consult with a South Carolina labor and employment lawyer for help in drafting and implementing an employee handbook for your company.