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I've been with a company for going on 11 years. Recently upper management has turned over and they've changed the "employee handbook". Among other things (what seems to be the most concerning part), is that signing it would waive my right to trial if conflict between me and the company occurs.

Is there a precedent as to whether I need to sign this? Does this require more knowledge of the contracts and thus do I need to show the old and new (very different) handbooks to a lawyer? ...or is this common now and I'm just not aware of it?

Update:

Thanks for all your input.

To summarize a couple comments below: Yes, what they want signed is an acknowledgement; at least it starts that way. Within the acknowledgement it states that by signing I must abide the handbook, which is followed by a section (still in the acknowledgement) about "at will" employment. To me that sounds like a contract and the latter part makes it sound much more forceful. Especially considering my initial concern that one of the sections specifically discusses how disagreements that become litigious must be handled--though I'm not thrilled with the "at will" stuff either, but that's a different issue.

Also, yes, it allows for arbitration, which is probably fine. It just seems so arbitrary and ultimately feels wrong to (at least attempt to) remove the possibility for a trial and require something that is likely to happen first anyway.

closed as off-topic by gnat, Garrison Neely, user8365, IDrinkandIKnowThings, Chris E Jan 31 '15 at 7:17

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    Note that even if it is in contract and you sign it, it does not mean that any clause is enforceable, because law may forbid it (for example, you may not sell yourself into slavery). In this case, losing the right to access the legal system sounds heavy handed and might not be (or might be) enforceable. Check with your lawyer. In any case, even signing an unenforceable clause adds an additional complication to you (if you decide to sue your employer, then you need to prove both that the clause in unenforceable, and that you are right in your suit). Check with a lawyer (again). – SJuan76 Jan 28 '15 at 21:15
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    What happens if you don't sign? Ask your own HR. They are the ones who can authoritatively tell you what they'll do to you if you don't sign. – Vietnhi Phuvan Jan 28 '15 at 23:00
  • @SJuan76 I believe what he's referring to is an arbitration agreement which is generally enforceable under the FAA. – Pieter DePree Jan 28 '15 at 23:23
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    If they push you to sign it it, tell them you are consulting your lawyer before you sign. Then do so. – HLGEM Jan 29 '15 at 15:09
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    Never sign an arbitration agreement for employment, call their bluff. The supreme court holds arbitration in such high regard that it trumps other laws, i.e., if you find yourself in a situation where FLSA is being violated you cannot sue, you must use arbitration. – daaxix Jan 31 '15 at 6:13
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That's tricky. Employee handbook and policy changes happen all the time. However this is a material legal change to your existing employment contract that you need to accept. That's rarer but certainly not unheard of.

There are two important things to consider: How much does the company care and how much to you care and is any party really willing to pick a fight over this.

The company clearly has a reason to do this. However the reason may be something stupid/harmless, e.g. there is new hotshot in legal who wants to make a name for herself. Or it could be totally nefarious: they know something bad is going down soon where the not having the right to sue is giving them a huge advantage.

It's important for you to figure out what the reason is. Ideally you talk to a person whom you trust and who may have some insight knowledge. Someone up the food chain or inside HR or legal. If you don't have this, you can ask your management and/or HR directly. This has to be done carefully: "I understand there is a significant legal change to my employment contract. Could you please explain what is the rationale behind this and why do you feel this is necessary?" The more you know about the reasons, the better you can assess how hard they are willing to push.

Secondly be clear about your own goals. Is this something you really care about? Personally I'd be more worried about change in IP ownership policies (which I have seen before). Suing your employer is a real desperate step and can be a career killer regardless of whether you are right or wrong or whether you win or lose. Often these types of clause are also trumped by local labor laws anyway.

So you have two options here: you sign or you don't. If you don't the company has two choices again: they let you get away with it or they push. The company reaction will be driven by two factors: how important it is to them (see above) and how many people are complaining about it. If a large number of the employees refuse to sign there is really not a lot the company can do. They may be able to discipline or fire one or two persons but a large scale firing is a major disaster. So it's important for you to find out how other people in the company feel about this and if there is significant resistance on the ground.

So unfortunately this is a complicated and potential dangerous situation. The more you know about the motivation of the company and the mood in the trenches the more intelligently you can react and act. However there is clearly a risk that can lead to a potential termination.

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I wouldn't call this "common" among the places that I have been to, but I have certainly seen it.

There's not much that we can actually help with, as this is company specific. However you will want to look at all documentation that is currently relevant. That includes any contracts and agreements that you have signed with this company. Clearly document what rights you have now that you would lose. If you have any concerns, take this documentation to a local lawyer.

In most cases, yes you will need to sign it if you want to continue working with this company. You can of course not sign it, but the company could choose to fire you for not signing. Otherwise there's always the option of applying at a different company.

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    But at least you can take them to court :-) – gnasher729 Jan 29 '15 at 14:50
  • Usually there is language that indicates that the agreement can be changed under certain circumstances and that you will be given notification of changes in a certain time frame and in a certain manner. You may choose not to sign it, but that is in effect choosing to not work for the company any longer. Whether you have a legal case would depend on the original agreement and a bunch of other things that can only be addressed by a lawyer. @gnasher729 – ColleenV Jan 29 '15 at 17:33
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Revisions to handbooks are relatively common. As organizations grow it is important for companies to update and revise policies and information contained within. You mentioned you had an old employee handbook. Had you previously signed an employment contract? If so, then most likely it had a clause in there stating that you understand that the information/policies are necessarily subject to change and that you understand that revision may apply, revised policies will supercede or replace existing policies, etc. etc.

You may want to look at the verbiage of the agreement they're asking you to sign. My assumption is they're asking you to sign an acknowledgement of the receipt of an employee handbook. Failure of an employee to sign the acknowledgement does not mean you're not still required to comply with the handbook policies its just stating that you've received the handbook.

The biggest thing they are looking for here is some written documentation that you were made aware of the new employee handbook. If you refuse to sign, HR may ask you to write that you refuse to sign on the form which is effectively the same thing as signing because they now have proof they made you aware of the new handbook and asked you to sign. They may also call in a witness and have the HR rep and "witness" both sign off on the form acknowledging that they presented you with the form/handbook and you refused to sign.

The point being, they cannot force you to sign the form. However, if you refuse they may view that as insubordination and cause for termination depending on how important this issue is for the new management.

Also, in regards to waiving your right to trial, that sounds like a separate arbitration agreement. Which is also enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA).

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    Refusing to sign what is essentially a contract cannot be "insubordination". – gnasher729 Jan 29 '15 at 14:51
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    Assuming we're discussing an employee handbook acknowledgement, then this is an acknowledgement for receipt of information not a contract. Compliance with the policies/information within is not contingent on the employees signature but is a condition of employment... – Pieter DePree Jan 29 '15 at 15:02
  • It starts as a simple acknowledgement, but also states that I must abide by them and talks about "at will" employment. Concerning abiding by them: one of the sections specifically discusses how disagreements that become litigious must be handled, which is what I have an issue with--though I'm not thrilled with the at will stuff either. – totherail Jan 29 '15 at 22:04
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    @Ryan, thats all very standard and common practice as well. In the US, all states are "employment-at-will" states, one of the most important doctrines of common law. However, there have been cases that have held that employee handbooks represent an "implied contract" in certain situations. One of the reasons they have you sign an acknowledgement that you've read the employee handbook is because it will mean that you've also read and understand the EAW section of the employee handbook, relieving any implied contract liability. – Pieter DePree Jan 29 '15 at 22:23

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