Using an employee handbook to communicate policies and protect the business

Jennifer Leeper, Major Accounts Manager, Ashton Staffing

Whether a company is a 10-person operation or a corporation with thousands of employees, its employer has a need to protect itself in case of employee-related claims. To keep the potential for legal landmines, confusion, and false expectations to a minimum, all employers should ensure they have an updated and relevant employee handbook — and that employees read and understand it. From HR policies such as vacation days to legal issues surrounding discrimination and employment contracts, employers need to stay up to date on what to include in their handbooks.

While every company is different in its structure and culture, each business’s handbook should at least address the basics.

“When creating a handbook there are a few essential items that are important to include,” says Jennifer Leeper, major accounts manager at Ashton Staffing.

Smart Business spoke to Leeper about how to help protect the business through proper use of an employee handbook.

Why should a company have an employee handbook?

A handbook is an important communication tool that is vital to any company with employees. A key aspect to a successful business is trust between the employer and the employee. One of the best ways to establish this trust is to develop an employee handbook. Handbooks are designed to help create structured environments and build loyalty within the company. Having said this, there are some employee handbooks that are so poorly written that they can actually damage the relationship between an employer and an employee. A poorly written handbook can cause a hostile work environment and can bind the company to promises that it didn’t even know it made. With the right advice, each company can develop a handbook that will establish a concrete relationship between the company and the employee.

What should be included in an employee handbook?

ν Disclaimer. The disclaimer is used to show that the handbook is not a binding contract of employment. This helps protect the employer if a fired employee decides to try to sue the company based on a breach of contract. The disclaimer should also include that the employment with the company is ‘at will’ and can be terminated by the employer or the employee at any time for any reason.

ν Equal opportunity statement. This should simply state that the employee’s religion, race, age, or sex will have nothing to do with hiring decisions, promotions, pay, or benefits.

ν Mission statement. A mission statement defines the question ‘Why do we exist?’ It should give the company a purpose and help boost morale. The statement should provide a better understanding of the values that the company has and its goals.

ν Defined work week. This should include lunch and time allotted for breaks.

ν General policies and procedures. All the basics should be included in this section. Policies such as dress code, vacation days, holidays, and telephone and Internet policies need to be clearly stated.

ν Sexual harassment and discrimination policies. It must be known that the company has a no-tolerance policy for harassment or discrimination of any kind. The company must also include different ways an employee may voice a complaint and who employees need to go to with concerns.

ν Leave policies. Include policies on all types of leave that the company is willing to allow. For example, jury duty, maternity leave, sick leaves as well as bereavement. It should also discuss who is eligible for leave and what would happen if excessive time is taken off.

ν Benefits. This is an important topic and should include who is eligible for benefits, the period of time that the employee must wait for coverage as well as how much the company will contribute towards the policy.

ν Disciplinary polices. Define what is included and considered to be employee misconduct as well as what the  consequences are of such actions.

ν Acknowledgment form. Every company needs a form for all employees to sign stating that they understand all of the rules and policies set forth in the handbook.

What are the most common mistakes employers make when putting together handbooks?

All companies can benefit from having a well prepared and thought out employee handbook. When creating a handbook it is important to make sure the following common mistakes are avoided.

Not having the handbook reviewed by a lawyer is one of the most commons mistakes employers can make. There are a lot of ways to state policies and sometimes being too vague may lead to potential legal issues. Having a lawyer who is versed in employment law review the handbook prior to distributing it to staff will help prevent any potential legal issues from arising.

Another common mistake employers make is not using straightforward language. If the handbook is too vague or too technical that the employees don’t understand it, then it won’t serve its purpose.

Failing to make sure that all employees read, sign, and have a copy of the handbook is another item that is often overlooked. A company must ensure that everyone signs a form agreeing that they have received a copy of the handbook. Employers need to keep that form in the employees’ files.

How often should employee handbooks be updated?

The world is constantly changing. From technology to society in general, it is important to make sure that handbooks are constantly updated to address new laws. What applied and was appropriate when the handbook was written may not apply or be appropriate now. Once a year, companies should review the handbook for any significant changes in company policies or laws.

Jennifer Leeper is major accounts manager at Ashton Staffing. Reach her at (770) 419-1776 or [email protected]