Employee Handbooks: The Key to Clear Expectations

An employee handbook is vital to every business, whether it has one or one thousand employees. Communicating expectations and company guidelines is important in maintaining a healthy work environment. Employees must be able to understand what is expected of them. A well thought out and clearly written handbook lays out all policies and rules so nothing is left to misinterpretation. It is much better to let staff focus on their jobs instead of ever changing office policy. A handbook takes the guesswork out for everyone.

The first thing to think about when putting together an employee handbook is anything that is included must be followed by both parties. Don’t put anything in you are not prepared to enforce. For example, if you choose to include a dress code, then it is imperative that you make all employees abide by it. Things are not to be included as “fail safes” or “just in case.” All guidelines are for everyone. While policies often come about from there being an issue with one staff member, once it is included in the book, it is law. If all parts are not enforced equally, it is very easy for employees to feel that all policies are optional. For that same reason, avoid the pitfall of making policies just to make them. Any policy that seems extraneous and unenforceable should be left out or changed. For example, “All bathroom breaks must be approved by a manager five minutes prior” is not only unreasonable, but unnecessary in most office environments. A better option is “it is the employee’s responsibility to let a manager know when they are leaving their workstation.” The latter is easier to enforce, and more logical.

There are several key items that should be incorporated into every handbook. The most important is an Employment at Will statement. This explains both the employer and employee are afforded the right to terminate the working relationship at any time for any reason. It also means that no tenure or guaranteed employment is available.

Other important sections to include are paid and unpaid holidays, dress code, standards of conduct, and disciplinary measures if the handbook is not followed.

The handbook should be clear, concise and basic. If it is too hard to determine what the guidelines actually are, then how can staff follow them? When expectations are spelled out plainly, there is no room left for employee interpretation. The staff should have no problem reading and understanding the handbook. Avoid legalese and complicated and detailed scenarios. Going over the handbook with every new employee will also avoid any confusion. Once the handbook has been reviewed and discussed, every employee should sign an acknowledgment form. This is a safety for the employer if the guidelines in the handbook are not being followed.

Anytime an amendment is added to the handbook it is the employer’s responsibility to make the staff aware. It should be reviewed and signed by each employee. Every employer should review and reissue their employee handbook with updated information every five years. This insures all information is correct and current. Policy that was enacted in years previous may be no longer necessary and new issues may need to be included. The handbook should be updated more often if there are significant changes within the company. Once the handbook has been reissued the entire staff should review and sign.

A good business attorney is available to help with any step of the process. It is wise to consult with a lawyer to ensure all policies and procedures are above board. Also, the attorney can be employed to write the entire handbook. If an employer chooses to write his own, it should be reviewed by an attorney. This ensures any possible legal issues are resolved before it is in the employee’s hands. A good handbook can protect a company owner from legal issues. However, one done incorrectly can be a huge liability. Using a trusted attorney to oversee the process will ensure that everything included is in line with state and federal laws.