Employee handbooks are my jam. Call me crazy all you want, but they are one of the most important documents in the employment relationship. In nearly all of the 500+ disputes I’ve dealt with, the handbook has been one of the first documents reviewed and is often one of the most referenced during litigation. Handbooks are the first step to compliance, and they don’t need to be daunting.
Handbooks Set Expectations
Handbooks set out the expectations of the employer. Discrimination and harassment policies specify what conduct an employer will not tolerate and how to report that conduct. Confidentiality and trade secret policies are in there to protect company data. Some handbooks have detailed discipline policies. Describing the conduct that could get an employee in trouble is meaningful and important when an employer finds itself on the receiving end of a lawsuit.
Handbooks are often an employee’s first stop when they have questions. Often the handbook has the answer, including the answers to such important questions like “If I have a baby, can I take time off?” “Was that comment inappropriate?” and “Can I see what’s in my personnel file?” By providing answers, the handbook equips employees to better prepare and maybe even reach out and ask more questions. A good thing!
Handbooks are a Creature of Culture
A handbook can set the tone of an employer. It can be very welcoming and encouraging or it can be harsh and punishing. One handbook I’ve revised included a warning that the employer will search employee handbags. While employees probably have a legitimate expectation of privacy to their handbags, telling an employee in a handbook that their bosses will search their purses at any time certainly sets a tone of distrust and gives an indication of the employer’s culture. Other handbooks describe a very different atmosphere, focusing on getting the work done no matter where and when an employee works. Employers need to be mindful of the tone set by their handbook.
Policies Should Be Understood
Legalese, schmegalese. The more complicated the language in a handbook, the less likely employees will understand it. If the policies are complicated, employees won’t know what is expected of them or what they can expect from their employer. Policy language should be easily understood and accessible to employees. Confusion breeds complaints and lawsuits.
Don’t Have Policies Unless You Mean Them
In the past few months, I’ve read and revised a bunch of handbooks. In almost all situations, we threw out policies the employers didn’t even know they had. A policy shouldn’t exist simply to have the policy. The policy needs to have meaning, be followed by management and employees, and be enforced. If extraneous policies exist in a handbook, the whole handbook loses some of its value.
Review Handbooks Often
Employment laws change almost daily these days. We can predict the return of respectful workplace policies or changes to discrimination laws on the state and local levels. With all the changes, handbook policies can get outdated quickly. Spend the dollars to have an attorney read your handbook every year and make changes as necessary. This compliance step shouldn’t break the bank and in a cost-benefit analysis, it’s well worth the cost.
Handbooks are one of the most valuable tools in an employer’s tool box and should be used accordingly. When a handbook has more than 30 pages, my heart hurts. When a handbook is over-policied, I know employees are not reading them or using the handbook as the valuable resource it is designed to be.