Key Reasons to Create an Employee Handbook— or at least appropriate policies

An Employee Handbook organizes and contains company policies and procedures. There are numerous reasons for employers to choose to issue an Employee Handbook or Employer Policy Manual. Although there is no federal or Florida law requiring private employers to provide a handbook, there are some communications you are required to make to your employees.

Each month, we receive numerous calls form clients with employees who would like to make a change in how they handle anything from payroll to work hours to ethics matters and use of computers, mobile phones, tablets, internet, social media and websites. Without policies and procedures in place, and without a clear statement of expectations, clients often find themselves stuck on making changes and communicating expectations.

Policies are governed by both federal law and state specific law and regulations. Compliance with both is a necessity. The Federal Department of Labor has a terrific tool called E-laws Adviser. At the Walk Law Firm, we recommend our clients review and use that tool in addition to calling us for advice. It covers wage and hour laws as well as other important matters such as determining if someone and independent contractor or an employee.

At the Walk Law Firm, we pride ourselves in assisting our clients with practical advice that is compliant with the law. Not every decision is black and white and when making decisions to eliminate a position or downsize in general, it is important to seek quality advice. We represent employers primarily, but have also assisted many executives as well as employers with executive compensation matters such as stock bonuses or stock incentive plans or other equity incentive plans, separation agreements and employment agreements.

Employee Handbook FAQs:

  • An Employee Handbook introduces new employees to the company, gives the company a chance to set forth your expectations for your employees, and provides an introduction to the company;
  • An Employee Handbook makes it easier to ensure that all employees receive notice of the company’s policies;
  • An Employee Handbook creates a centralized place for employees to look for answers and guidance on your company’s practices and expectations, and what to do in various situations; and
  • An Employee Handbook and signed acknowledgments of receipt can assist in an employer’s legal defense, such as when non-compliance leads to termination of employment or another kind of adverse employment action.

Do Not Inadvertently Create a Contract

  • Employee Handbooks must be drafted in a manner that does not create legal obligations that the employer did not intend, and contain provisions reserving certain employer rights. Preparation of the handbook or at least review by your counsel is crucial.

Maintaining a Handbook

  • Employers must review Employee Handbooks periodically to ensure that all policies are current and lawful. At a minimum, a handbook must be reviewed and revised, if necessary, when there is a change in the law, employer policies or procedures, and when the employer expands into new states.Employer

Sweat Equity v. Money Investors: Who Makes the Rules? [The Golden Rule of Business]

Many years ago, while working as the General Counsel to a large public company going through a Chapter 11 Bankruptcy, I learned that the Golden Rule as we all learned it in kindergarten [do unto others as you would have other do unto you] is not the only Golden Rule when it comes to business. I certainly support and believe in the Golden Rule we learned in kindergarten and try my best to adhere to it, but when it comes to money and business, I have learned that the Golden Rule really is: the person with the gold makes the rules.

In business large and small, there is often reward and equity for those who have a great idea or are the work horses driving success (the “Sweat Equity Owner”). Typically, however, the greatest percentage of equity and, hence, the greatest return in pure dollars, goes to the person who put up the money in the first place (the “Cash Equity Owner”). Once the business gets going, this often leads to resentment of the Sweat Equity Owner and frustration of the Cash Equity Owner.

Not surprisingly, the Sweat Equity Owner often feels like he has worked harder and should be compensated for the hard work and ideas. In addition, the family of the Sweat Equity Owner has started to feel the pain of long hours and missed meals and events, resenting the Cash Equity Owner whose life and lifestyle has not changed at all.

The Cash Equity Owner is frustrated because the project is taking longer than expected to show a return and the Sweat Equity Owner continues to ask for cash, primarily to meet living expenses in the form of  salaries for business personnel. The Cash Equity Owner usually has other investments or businesses and more business experience and wants the Sweat Equity Owner to work differently and take his advice on how to get the work done more quickly so that product can get to market faster. His family (or fund investors) wants to know when they will see a return on investment.

Not to sound like a broken record on the reasons for Business Divorce, but there are some things that can be done at the onset of a relationship to avoid these dilemmas. Too often, when the relationship is formed, there is no substantive discussion of duties, timing for deliverables and exit strategy for the Cash Equity Owner. The conversations are very high level and never transcribed into a detailed agreement. One party calls cash loans while the other considers it equity.

In the last 12 months, I have encountered among other missteps: companies in which the equity was never issued despite cash being infused; standard Bylaws from companies like Legal Zoom were used, but no one ever read or understood what they meant; Articles were filed on www.Sunbiz.org indicating the names of managers, managing members, officers, owners … who were not in fact in the positions indicated and who had no authority to act on behalf of the business; domain names and other intellectual property placed in the name of one owner instead of the business …. This list is hardly exhaustive, but all have led to expensive legal battles between business partners on break-up.

When I get the call, whether as an attorney or mediator, that business partners are seeking to terminate their business relationship, the first step in my analysis is to look at the agreements between the partners.  These documents become the guide on how to proceed. If they have been carefully crafted and reflect the partners intent, often the cost to the business as well as the individuals for navigating the business divorce is emotionally and financially insignificant —- Owners typically know what to expect and time is spent implementing already agreed plans. Without these written agreements or mutual acknowledgment of intent of unwritten agreements by the Owners, the cost in the first days of efforts to separate can be thousands, and at times, tens of thousands, of dollars.

At this point you are probably thinking that I am exaggerating, but in fact, if a lawsuit needs to be filed  in order to keep the business running and make it clear who has authority to act, the effort is significant and lawyer time and cost is high. We start by preparing a complaint seeking injunctive relief and serve it with requests for admissions, production of documents and interrogatories. At times, we demand a receiver be appointed if we are representing the Cash Equity Owner and our client is not ready or able to step in and run the business. We seek emergency hearings to ensure if our client in good faith believes irreparable harm to, or waste of, business assets will occur if action is not immediate.  We often need to include third parties such as the domain hosts or banks to require them to turn over account codes and keys or to freeze assets.

Courts do not like to get involved in daily business activities and if the situation  lacks clarity, the court may appoint a receiver on its own. Domains and intellectual property will need to be be place in escrow; bank accounts will need to be frozen or unfrozen; payroll companies, customers, vendors, employees will all need to be notified as to who has authority to direct activities just to keep the business operating  and attorneys will be stepping into conversations with domain hosts, bankers, customers, vendors and employees…. all while on the clock. By the way, the Receiver will hire an attorney as well and both the receiver and attorney will also be on the clock.

Back to the Golden Rule — needless to say, the Cash Equity Owner often has the gold necessary to stay afloat while the Sweat Equity Owner does not.

Although good friends and family members make great investors because they are trustworthy, life changes and needs change over time. By having a frank conversation up-front and documenting the deal, before money is invested, much of the financial and emotional cost can be minimized on business divorce and friendships and family relations can remain favorably intact. Like a good pre-nuptial, shareholder agreements, operating agreements, and buy-sell agreements, can minimize cost in the future and avoid undue emotional harm. To me, it is well worth spending a couple hours in frank discussion and a couple thousand dollars up-front when investing in a business to avoid a later fight at ten times that expense.

At the Walk Law Firm, we regularly advise clients on these matters and encourage open discussion between owners. We can work as company counsel or as counsel to a business owner in helping businesses sort through these issues.

Five Questions to Ask When Hiring a Lawyer for Your Business

As a General Counsel, I spent a significant amount of time researching and interviewing attorneys and other professionals to represent my company’s interest in litigation and business negotiations. The selection of counsel is a significant investment for a business and is more than a cost. As a matter of fact, selecting the wrong counsel or failing to engage counsel may be the most costly decision a business may ever make.

Business lawyers are not a dime a dozen and all lawyers are not created equally. Experience in business and with specific transactions helps clients set strategy and successfully navigate the most difficult transactions from financing arrangements to large acquisitions of property and negotiations with key employees and contractors. Often, business lawyers are sounding boards to business owners contemplating  confidential business transactions.

With the advent of the internet, it is easy to find lawyers and there are plenty of bidding sites like Elance.com and Guru.com where you can get a flat fee or a cheap quote. As tempting as it is to hire the cheapest lawyer, I strongly suggest that business owners take the time to find the best lawyer for the situation, avoiding what might be a costly mistake. So here are 5* questions I always ask when I engage counsel for business matters:

1. Who at the law firm will handle my work?

  • If it is a team, who will be on the team?
  • Who will be the lead and my contact?
  • How was the team selected?

2. What is [each working attorney’s ] experience in handling matters like the one that I have described?

  • Has this attorney ever handled this type of matter before?
  • Has the lead attorney ever been the lead in a matter like this before?

3. What is the attorney’s and firm’s workload and ability to handle the work in my time-frame?

  • Any time off or vacations planned?
  • Is the lead attorney accessible?
  • How will communications work? Email or Telephone? In Person Meetings?
  • How often should I expect to receive a status report?

4. What does the attorney anticipate the process to be?

  • What outcomes might I expect or should I consider?
  • What are the issues are concerning?
  • Make sure you understand the terms the lawyer uses and do not be afraid to stop a lawyer and ask what something means!

5. Billing and Fees:

  • How does the firm/attorney charge?
  • Can the firm provide a detailed invoice no less often than monthly for my review?
  • How can the firm and I positively or negatively impact fees?

As you can see, fees and costs are last, but not forgotten. It is important to understand that an inexperienced attorney can consume excessive time researching a matter just like a disorganized client can consume excessive amounts of attorney time just to get information gathered — both situations can significantly increase legal cost.

I have found that for some matters, an hour of a very experienced, albeit pricey, lawyer’s time is often more valuable than ten hours of the time of an attorney who is a newcomer to the topic. When I expect the transaction or litigation to have big rewards or expose my company to significant risk, I choose experience over hourly rate every time.

*By way of disclaimer, I usually ask more than 5 questions, I always do plenty of research,  and I also ask business friends and other professionals I trust for referrals to appropriate business lawyers. My five questions are in addition to references and research.