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Employee Handbook Policies Every Game Developer Should Have

Posted by attorney Daniel Rosenthal

A fair number of the cases that I deal with at LeifLaw are, unfortunately, matters where a studio could have avoided liability, ill-will, and other drama and negativity simply by having a clear set of employee expectations outlined in an employee handbook. Sadly, many studios either neglect this, or leave it to untrained HR-types to guess at work that really ought to be done by an attorney. Below, I'm going to discuss some policies that a game development studio -- or any small business --really ought to have in their employee handbook.

  1. Anti-Harassment/Anti-Discrimination Policy: It's simply unacceptable in this day and age to allow workplace harassment and discrimination, and yet just about every day that I go to Kotaku or Polygon, I'm struck by reading about situations where female employees are being harassed over their looks, minority employees are being subjected to "jokes" in poor humor that border on racial slurs, and other unacceptable behavior. I shouldn't even need to explain why this is a bad thing, but anyone who has spent time in the industry has seen or heard of it happening by people who really ought to know better. An employee handbook should absolutely contain a policy prohibiting discrimination or harassment by any employee based on a person's race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, disability, veteran status, and any other classification protected by law. This policy should clearly spell out how to report such behavior if someone believes themselves to be a victim, and should provide a clear outline of expectations as to what will happen and describe the reviewing process.
  2. Equal Opportunity Employment Policy: Related to the above, an EEO policy provides a statement from the studio that it will treat all employees fairly and equitably in the terms and conditions of their employment, without regard to the protected statuses listed above. The main difference between this and the above anti-harassment policy is that EEO policies deal specifically with terms and conditions of employment from the employer to the employee, whereas harassment can potentially be among two employees, and can involve conduct not covered in the terms and conditions of one's employment.
  3. Retaliation Policy: The third leg of the "Don't be a dick" policy trifecta, this policy prohibits the studio from taking action against an employee for reporting allegations of wrongdoing or impropriety. It's simple -- you want your employees to be comfortable reporting when they're being harassed; you don't want to punish them for doing so. This simply codifies that.
  4. FMLA Policy: Smaller studios can potentially get away without this, but any studio over 50 employees needs to comply with the Family and Medical Leave Act. And it's good practice to provide a policy for this even if you are small enough not to have to do so. For bigger studios, this is a legal requirement.
  5. Electronic Privacy/Monitoring Policy: Fact is, many employers monitor their employees' computer usage, whether that's to keep them from revealing sensitive data or to ensure that they're actually working and not slacking-off on Facebook. Other employers are privacy advocates and don't want anything to do with this. Regardless of which way you fall on that spectrum, you should have a policy explicitly outlining whether there is any expectation of privacy in communications using company equipment, and whether the employer can monitor employees (you aren't obligated to, you can simply "reserve the right" to do so, if necessary.
  6. Disability Policy: Not only should you not be discriminating against an employee (or a job applicant) for their disabilities, but you may be required under the ADA to provide reasonable accommodations to an employee with a qualifying disability. The definition of disability is far broader than many employers think, and unfortunately we see too many instances where an employer says "I don't believe you" or "I don't have to do anything for you, find another job." I've personally experienced employment discrimination for a physical disability in the past, and I can tell you that it's stressful and only serves to antagonize the employee and create liability for the employer. A policy clearly outlining that the employer will follow the ADA's guidelines and an internal policy for determining reasonable accommodations can save everyone a lo of heartache.

Of course, these aren't the only policies you need. Now that some states are legalizing or decriminalizing the usage of recreational marijuana, an alcohol and drug policy should be put into place. You should have policies outlining who is in charge of administering disciplinary action at the studio, and on what grounds (and to whom) the employee can appeal such action. You should have time/attendance policies. You may not need a strict dress code, but putting in some sort of boundaries may not be a bad idea. Policies on how to deal with the press/media, friends and family beta testing, etc., all things that ought to be in a good solid employee handbook. Yes, you may end up with a fairly substantial document but you'll be able to point to that document whenever a question comes up and simply counter "What does the handbook say?"

LeifLaw attorneys are familiar with the drafting of employee handbooks, and know the games industry and the quirks that go into the operation of a game studio. Contact us today for a free consultation

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