The employee handbook is a common document for a company to have, but it’s not mandatory.
A handbook is one of those nice-to-haves because it’s nice for both the employer and the employee.
It’s a compilation of information about company employment practices, policies, benefits, conduct expectations, safety guidelines and more.
While an employee handbook isn’t a guarantee against lawsuits, a good handbook that is consistently applied is an important management tool that minimizes the risk of legal action against the employer and provides a first-line defense against employee claims of wrongdoing by an organization or particular leader.
Here are five practical reasons to create and update an employee handbook.
1. Fairness in the employee handbook
The perception employees have of a handbook can be varied — some people will tell you it is more fair to have one and others may think that not having one allows a company to be more fair.
In reality, containing employment policies and practices in one place allows for a company to be transparent and provide consistent treatment for all employees.
A handbook will protect an employer in matters of discipline and discharge and becomes a guide for all staff members to follow.
But having the handbook is not enough. The employer must also practice consistency. Having policies and procedures documented is the first step to being fair. And ultimately, communicating the rules openly is more fair than not.
The handbook is where employment-related policies and information live.
You can operate without a handbook and simply follow the state, local, and federal laws but it is suggested that you not only have one, but keep it updated. Ideally, you review it a minimum of every two years or as your policies change.
The handbook, if constructed and used properly, is a reference guide for both employees and managers and a way to introduce a new employee to the company and culture. Some primary policies include: harassment, standards of conduct, ethics code, social media, electronic assets and usage, and benefits.
Employees and managers can reference these policies to see how to navigate issues and see what perks are available to them. It’s important to include common practices and revise any policies which have caused confusion. If multiple people ask about something, addressing it in the handbook is a good place to start.
Most employees use a handbook to look up policies addressing time off or away from work such as bereavement, jury duty, PTO, attendance, leaves of absence and business closures, but it is also often the first document a new employee sees.
A few years back, I was asked to update a company’s handbook in a lighthearted fun way. In an effort to make the handbook more inviting and engaging, it was suggested that I mimic an instructional manual with pictures, cartoons and diagrams. Content was to be sacrificed for frivolity. Being a largely remote team, they wanted to engage new hires while expressing their creative side.
While most handbooks are largely text without pictures, the tone and manner in which you address things will be a part of the company’s voice. This is the shared book of the company that your people belong to. Be sure to outline your company’s mission and values, showcasing it as a valuable part of work life.
By setting clear expectations, being fair, and defining your culture, you are also enabling employees to be more productive. This resource will reduce confusion and disputes.
It will resolve most issues before they become serious. It may direct people to the proper channels for resolution sooner. It offers protection against baseless claims and affords reassurances that result in allowing employees to focus their energies on work efforts instead of confusion.
In my experience, you write the handbook for the one employee who reads it thoroughly. And that employee might be called a plaintiff one day unless you consistently follow a well-written handbook that protects the company and management.
Whether your draft began as a copy from a former company or was fabricated using an online tool, it’s not enough to use attorney-written policies that may have been written for another company size, location or industry.
While online attorney-written policy toolboxes can get you very close to being correct, I recommend an employment attorney review your handbook initially and as things change.
You may not realize that the guidelines that you laid out in your social media policy interfere with rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). In fact, you might have removed all policies or sentences that reference the NLRA because you’re not a union shop without realizing that all employees have these rights. The cost to have a manual for legal protection is a lot cheaper than settling a lawsuit.
Creating and updating your company handbook is a useful venture for both the employer and the employees as long as the handbook is legally sound and is consistently applied. If you make changes that impact employees, always make them aware and collect their acknowledgement of the new guide.
Whether you have a handbook or not, it’s important that the employer follow all legal practices that pertain to them, and since some states require employers to address certain policies in writing, you may as well create a handbook to house them.