CHICAGO—Your handbook should accurately reflect what is important to your organization, Michael S. Cohen, an attorney at Philadelphia law firm Duane Morris, emphasized to attendees of a Sunday workshop at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2013 Annual Conference & Exposition.
No two handbooks will be exactly the same, he said.
Why have a handbook at all? There are several reasons, Cohen said. First, the law requires that employers have certain policies in place, such as a Family and Medical Leave Act policy if your company meets criteria for FMLA coverage and an equal employment opportunity policy that includes an effective complaint procedure. There are other policies that, while not legally required, should also be established in writing—social media and electronic-communication policies fall into this category.
Providing workers with a handbook will foster better employer-employee relations and inform employees of what is expected of them. Moreover, a handbook will help companies avoid legal claims down the road and help them defend against such claims if they arise.
Length, Tone, Method of Distribution
When deciding how long your handbook should be, “do what makes sense for your organization,” but make sure to include important policies. You may also have to take into account management expectations. If the C-suite is hoping for eight pages and you produce hundreds, obviously, some type of compromise must be reached.
As for the manual’s tone, you will have to decide between using first and third person, Cohen said. Do you want to say “employers and employees” or address handbook readers as “you”? Cohen said his preference is handbooks that take a friendly approach. “I like the personal touch—‘you’ instead of ‘the employee.’ ”
When deciding how to deliver the manual, consider electronic distribution. But make sure you have a “click agreement” for employees to acknowledge receipt, and include the acknowledgment in each worker’s personnel file.
“Your employees are not reading your handbook,” Cohen observed. And they should not be reading it from start to finish. The handbook is for reference and to check policies when workers have questions. “Don’t ask employees to lie on their first day of work” by having them sign documents saying they have read the handbook, Cohen said.
All handbooks should expressly state whom they cover: All employees? Those at certain locations? Managers vs. nonmanagers? Nonunionized employees only? A manual should also include language stressing that employment is at will and that the handbook provisions do not establish an employment contract.
The employer should reserve the right to change the handbook and make clear that, if a new one is issued, its provisions supersede the older ones.
In addition, employment handbooks should include a provision stating that if its terms conflict with the law, the law governs. This may be useful when a law has changed and the company handbook has not kept pace with the updates.
What you leave out of your handbook may be as important as what you put in it, Cohen said. Make sure that what is written reflects your actual policies. For example, “Some employers still state that ‘e-mail is for business purposes only.’ No one is enforcing this,” he said. The existence of that unenforced policy may cause employees to doubt all your policies.
Joanne Deschenaux is senior legal editor for SHRM.