You have carefully crafted your employee handbook to expressly and explicitly disclaim any contractual relationship with your employees and keep them at-will and then- BOOM. You got cute with the fine print. You kept your important language buried in the minutia of the handbook while keeping all the employee-friendly terms front and center. This may have been good enough in the past but it is no longer. Let’s look at Reynolds v. Gentry Finance Corporation, 2016 UT App 35, a recent case from the Utah Court of Appeals on this issue.
“[A]n employee handbook distributed to an at-will employee may modify the at-will employment relationship.”
A company’s employee manual is a great opportunity to define its employment relationship with its employees. In fact, employers often expect and hope that employees refer to the employment manual to understand the terms of their employment– not every employee warrants an employment agreement. Here’s where the Gentry company went a bit awry.
Gentry wanted to keep the bundle of at-will employee ‘privileges’ intact while at the same time make the broad statement that “NO EMPLOYEE WILL BE TERMINATED OR HAVE ANY ADVERSE ACTION TAKEN AGAINST THEM FOR BRINGING A COMPLAINT TO THE ATTENTION OF THE HOME OFFICE.” (Capitalization, boldface, and italics in Gentry’s handbook).
“Utah law allows employers to disclaim any contractual relationship that might otherwise arise from employee manuals.” To do this, however, the employer must include in the employee handbook “a clear and conspicuous disclaimer of contractual liability.” This is where it gets sticky and you need to step carefully because 1) “[t]he prominence of the text, [2)]the placement of the disclaimer, and [3)] the language of the disclaimer are all relevant factors in determining whether a disclaimer is clear and conspicuous.”
What does this mean? Well, for example, in a Utah Supreme Court case, a disclaimer that was conspicuously located at the top of a employee handbook and prominently bolded and SET APART by a text box was good enough or “sufficiently prominent” to put employees on notice of its terms. Use your imagination. Look at the ALLCAPS, italicized, and bolded statement from Gentry’s handbook. It stands out. And, if it stands out to you, it is likely to stand out to your employees. If you have questions, talk to a lawyer. I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to Gentry.
Gentry got sideways with its employee handbook even though it had four separate disclaimers in it. Unlike the disclaimer case example above and Gentry’s statement that an employee would not be terminated or had adverse action taken against them, Gentry’s disclaimer was nearly invisible. The court found that the disclaimer had not been placed at the top of the relevant policy, was “not prominent, not bolded, and not set apart by a text box. It [was], in a word, inconspicuous.”
So what? Well, for Gentry it meant that its employee could avoid having its case dismissed and a jury would get to hear her case. Juries are a mixed bag. If your employee handbook is clean and clear and meets all the right requirements to keep your at-will rights intact, you punch your ticket out of the case early and cheaply. Gentry, however, now gets to pitch its story to a jury who may be sympathetic to an employee that the jury may feel has been wronged.
The takeaway from Reynolds: don’t get cute with your employee manual. Don’t put the important stuff in the fine print or make it inconspicuous. Bold it. Put it in ALLCAPS and italicize it. Make it a black box label that cannot be ignored.
There are issues and nuances for employee handbooks that certainly cannot all be addressed here. If you have questions, you should get specific legal advice. If you would like more information about employee manuals, employment agreements, protecting your rights, or rectifying wrongs committed against you, contact Utah attorney Ken Reich directly. Mr. Reich has represented both companies and individuals in business matters and disputes. Using his many years of experience and backed by a firm of legal specialists in nearly every legal field, Mr. Reich can help you evaluate your situation and help you make smart decisions about your business and your life that will best fit your circumstances.