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Personnel Policy Manuals - Time for Review?


     By M2 Resource Group, Inc Fire & EMS Subject Matter Expert Witness; Litigation Support; Psychological Testing & Counseling

PhoneCall John K. Murphy, JD, MS, PA-C, EFO, at (206) 940-6502


Personnel Policy Manuals are an important tool in guiding on duty and off duty behavior of your employees. Most Personnel Policy Manuals have not been revised for many years and may contain material not appropriate for today's workforce and out of compliance with current laws.
When you get sued for workplace harassment, discrimination, a motor vehicle accident, or for any other reason, part of the first things the plaintiff’s lawyer will seek in Discovery is your department’s Personnel Policy Manual.

If you are like most departments, there is a thick layer of dust on the covers, or the Word version you used to draft your policy is no longer supported by that big technology company in Washington state. When I was working as a deputy chief, we used to have Wednesday sessions to review policy--an excruciatingly painful process, but when the lawyers come knocking on your door, it will have been a worthwhile effort. Your fire department legal counsel will appreciate an up-to-date Personnel Policy Manual, too, since they defend your department during these litigious events.

Personnel Policy Manuals requirements apply equally to volunteer and career fire departments, and sufficient time should be taken to craft a bulletproof Personal Policy Manual.

Many policy manuals are created to address some violation of “policy”: firefighters or other employees being late for work, the use of social media, the use of medications or alcohol while on the job, and so on. Many policies are created because some firefighter violated an unwritten policy. Subsequently, the department creates a “policy” so that the next time it happens, it can enforce a formerly unwritten rule and have a policy guiding future conduct.

I can tell you from experience that many policy manuals are created to manage the actions of one or two employees or events. Many policy manuals are filled with worthless and useless material. This lack of organization and appropriateness in your Personnel Policy Manuals can hurt you in your defense of your organizational practices.

What should your Personnel Policy Manual contain? I liked the original Nordstrom policy, which stated:

Nordstrom Policy

Welcome to Nordstrom - We're glad to have you with our company. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them.

Nordstrom Rules: Rule #1: Use good judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.

Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager, or division general manager any question at any time.

Over time, Nordstrom has added more elements to its Personnel Policy Manual. The fire service has done the same over the years, with changing rules, laws, and experiences on which we are “required” to provide guidance for our firefighters and staff.

Personnel Policy Manuals should contain these basic elements:

•An overview and statement of the employment relationship with the fire department. This should include the vision, mission, and value statements. It should also state your department’s overall goals and its commitment to the employees and the community.

•A code of conduct and ethics that guides both on-duty and off-duty conduct. Many times we see our firefighters engaging in off-duty conduct that embarrasses our department. At times, these actions have certain criminal and civil elements that harm your department’s reputation.

Yes, you can create a policy for off-duty conduct that affects your department, and YES, you should enforce these off-duty events.

You should also cover these elements, as well:

•A statement that you are compliant with equal opportunity rules and regulations and that you will provide reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities.

•A statement indicating that your hiring policies and practices include testing elements for internal promotions and external hiring.

•A policy related to the employees’ personnel files--access, review, adding, and deleting files. Also, what are the employee’s rights for access to their own personnel files?

•You should have a policy on harassment and discrimination: a reporting and an investigation procedure. This section should also contain a complaint procedure and conflict resolution procedure.

•You should describe exempt and nonexempt employees and, if you have collective bargaining in your state, discuss your collective bargaining agreement.

•To describe your workplace professionalism and company representation, your manual should include your dress code; that you are a tobacco-free workplace; that you are a drug- and alcohol-free workplace; and that you have a no-weapons policy and a safety and security policy.

•You should also have a policy related to accepting gifts, travel reimbursement, and how you would deal with vendors giving sports tickets or trips back to the factory.

Your employees would appreciate a section on compensation and benefits. This should include:

•Payroll information, the compensation schedule, and how work time is recorded, employee benefits and dependent eligibility and other benefits, if any, while employed by the department, including vision, dental, medical and life insurance. This may also include any disability benefits the department or other agency provides for sick and injured employees.

•You also want to have a policy on family medical leave (FMLA), your employee assistance program (EAP), and any other leave benefits, including military leave (USERRA) for your military reservists. Also important is leave for jury duty, sick leave, bereavement leave, and paid time off, including vacation time.

What many organizations do not have, because it is so new, is a policy governing the use of company equipment and electronics and social media. This should include the following:

•Computers, telephones, cell phones, Internet, and e-mail. It should also cover blogging and using social media.

•There should be a statement of an expectation of privacy while using department equipment.

•Include monitoring of the workplace’s use of electronic devices, including e-mail, computers, Internet, and telephone, including voice mail. I would also include the use of the copy machine, since it will also record enormous amounts of data.

•Your manual should also include a statement on locker searches, video surveillance, and physical searches, as well as the procedure for conducting those searches.

Finally, there needs to be a section on personnel performance expectations and evaluation of those performances, including

•Probationary period evaluations and annual evaluations. How, when, and who will conduct those evaluations?

•A policy related to administrative investigations and what happens to those investigations. There are many rules associated with administrative (internal) investigations and your policy needs to be as detailed as possible during these events.

•A discipline policy to include progressive discipline up to termination and what happens to the employee, the final paycheck, and return of equipment to the department.

This is a partial list of essential elements in a Personnel Policy Manual. Personnel (firefighter vs. firefighter or department) issues are a major cause of litigation in our fire services and in other employment situations. It is incumbent upon you as the fire chief or human resources officer to ensure that you have a Personnel Policy Manual and that it is up-to-date.

A Personnel Policy Manual is only one of a few manuals you should have in your organization. There are many more that guide training, field operations, driving, fire suppression, rescue, safety, disaster recovery, and the hundreds of other tasks and responsibilities we have in providing a service to our communities.

Several organizations will assist you in writing your Personnel Policy Manual. A little research on your part will lead you to the right company that will assist you in this major and important effort

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John K. Murphy, JD, MS, PA-C, EFO,
Chief Murphy retired as a Deputy Fire Chief after 32 years of career service; is a practicing attorney and a Physicians Assistant. Chief Murphy is a frequent speaker on legal and medical issues at local, state and national fire service conferences. He is a contributing author to Fire Engineering.

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While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.
For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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