Cover yourself and your dental practice: What you need in a good employee handbook

August 13, 2015

You wouldn’t examine a patient without proper PPE. Don’t run your practice without a well-written employee handbook that protects you against staff misunderstandings and even lawsuits.

You wouldn’t examine a patient without proper PPE. Don’t run your practice without a well-written employee handbook that protects you against staff misunderstandings and even lawsuits.

A good handbook covers two general areas: What you expect from your staff in terms of their behavior, performance and attitude and what benefits your employees can expect from you.

The section that spells out what you expect from your staff should contain specific language that can be used in performance reviews and in any disciplinary actions. The section that outlines the benefits employees receive should include language that makes clear you have the right to make changes as necessary. Don’t lock yourself in with phrases such as “performance reviews will be conducted annually.” Don’t refer to “permanent” employees. Give yourself leeway.

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The employee handbook should cover basic laws - federal and state - regarding equal employment, discrimination and harassment, says employment attorney Devora L. Lindeman, senior counsel for the management law firm Greenwald Doherty LLP in New York. “You should have a policy that says: We treat everybody equal. We’re creating a workplace where everyone feels welcome.”

Lindeman, who regularly represents dental practices, says a good handbookcovers a wide range of topics, including work hours, vacation, holidays, personal time off, sick leave, safety policy, substance abuse policy, performance reviews, merit increases, promotions and an outline of disciplinary procedures, including any appeal procedures.

Keep in mind that some states, localities and cities have requirements regarding policies that must be in writing, she says. These might include: What day is payday? What hours is the practice open? What are the paid holidays, vacation times, sick time? “That doesn’t mean you have to give paid holidays and sick time but know what your state requires,” Lindeman notes.”

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A critical part of the handbook is the at-will statement - the statement that you can terminate an employee at any time for any reason (except an illegal one) or for no reason and that the employee is free to leave at any time. Make clear that the handbook is not a contract of employment. And again, check to see if there are any special requirements in your state about how to present this statement.

You’ll definitely want to include a social media policy that covers personal cell phones and Internet use. “Make it clear that the computers belong to the practice and that employees should have no expectation of privacy,” says Lindeman.

A well-stated social media policy is especially important for medical practices, she says, because of HIPAA confidentiality demands. Lindeman recommends having a policy of not allowing phones, with their cameras and recording devices, in areas where there are patients or records.

“I had a situation with a dental client where a hygienist posted her schedule to show how busy she was, but it had confidential information about patients. Sometimes people don’t think,” Lindeman says.

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Another sensitive area is denial of service to patients who do not pay or who are not compliant with treatment, she says. Your policy should say who has the ability to make those determinations and who can make refunds to patients.

Your employee handbook should include a section that explains how you want employees to handle calls from reporters or other media inquiries. It’s a good idea to designate a single point of contact for media inquiries.

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The handbook is also the place to state any policies governing searches in the workplace so that staff members know how much privacy they can expect. It’s also the place for rules governing access to the premises for employees and non-employees and, along with that, a no-solicitation policy.

If you have a dress code, state it in your employee handbook. If staff members are required to wear scrubs, state who provides them.

Include a policy advising employees that they are required to keep licenses, certificates and continuing education current.

You can have printed copies of the handbook for employees, but it’s easier to make updates if the handbook is online. “You can put it online on the intranet, as long as it’s not available to the world. Make sure it’s secure and just accessible to employees,” Lindeman says.

And, finally, she emphasizes, make sure the handbook includes an acknowledgment form, one that states the employee has received the handbook, read it and will abide by it. Editor's Note: More information about employee handbooks is available at the U.S. Small Business Administration website: https://www.sba.gov/content/employee-handbooks