Dental Practice Employee Handbooks – August 2008

Smaller employers such as dental practices often will not think that their employees need to have an employee handbook given to them upon hiring. But not only does an employee handbook give useful information to the employee, it allows for legal backup should any disputes over discharges, rules violations or benefits arise.

A preface to the handbook which sets out the practice’s general business philosophy and history is important to setting a friendly tone to the workplace. It should emphasize the willingness of the practice owners to answer any questions which fall outside the written personnel policies.

A section on normal working hours allows the practice owner to let the employee know what times are the starting and ending times for each shift and that punctuality is expected. The applicability of overtime laws to individual types of employees within the practice should be noted. For instance, in the dental field, hygienists normally are considered “learned professionals,” whose education and training denotes them as exempt from federal laws on overtime. Dental assistants, however are not exempt from these laws, and must be paid overtime, as are hygienists who have not completed their education and training. Office managers are considered administrative employees whose managerial discretion makes them exempt from overtime laws.

A separate part of the employee handbook should cover benefits such as paid vacations, health benefits, sick pay and unpaid leaves for long term illnesses, pregnancy or family matters. Coverage of these benefits after the employee leaves the practice should definitely be noted.

Sexual harassment is an often litigated area of the law which is important enough to merit a highlighted area of a handbook. A practice must state that sexual harassment will not be tolerated and detail how to report a violation.

In any small business that caters to the general public, such as a dental practice, it will be prudent to state in a handbook what the rules are for grooming and clothing. Stay away from having gender distinctions in making these rules, and try not to state specific rules that may violate religious customs like wearing scarves, turbans or beards.

A section on discipline in the workplace allows the practice owner an area in which to detail specific actions that will not be tolerated such as theft, violence, drug use or alcohol use, as well as the penalties that will be imposed for violating such policies such as suspension or termination. The use of progressive discipline policies should leave discretion to the practice owner so that unique circumstances can be dealt with. This is a good place to state that all employees are considered at will employees and can be discharged for any reason or for no reason. This is important in any handbook because employee handbooks most often will be ruled as contracts by a court, and the practice owner must have flexibility in termination decisions.

Rules regarding employee and patient safety are a necessity particularly in a dental practice where the health and safety of patients is important.   Practices involving good hygiene, sterilization of instruments, use of throwaway gloves, and use of face masks are examples of dental office policies which should be inserted in handbooks.

A section on performance evaluations, with an indication of how regularly they will be done and what they contain is a good way to avoid disgruntled employees who may blame a discharge on something such as discrimination, when actually there is a record of sub par performance.

Finally, a signed acknowledgement of the receipt of the handbook should be placed in an employee’s personnel file. That way there is no confusion about knowledge of workplace rules.