Is Your Employee Handbook Too Wordy?

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Mar 17, 2010
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New employees commonly are asked to sign an acknowledgement form saying that they “have read and understand” their company’s employee handbook. But such documents often contain a level of detail that can overwhelm a new hire.

This issue was recently put before members of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Employee Relations Special Expertise Panel and was presented to HR professionals on the business networking site LinkedIn. The challenge: Write an employee handbook using 25 words or less.

The responses, though varied, had a number of common themes that hearken to early childhood guidance, such as: Work hard and be nice to people.

For example, Amanda Haddaway, director of human resources and marketing for Folcomer Equipment Corp. in Frederick, Md., said: “Be a responsible employee by being present, working hard, using common sense and acting in a legal and effective manner. When in doubt, ask manager.”

And Jenilee Deal, an HR associate at the California investment firm Bailard, Inc., said: “Use your best judgment and exceed the highest standards. Foster enthusiasm, reliability, communication, positivity and honesty.”

Panel member Chana C. Anderson, SPHR-CA, CCP, director of HR for the Jewish Home San Francisco, used a couple of extra words to emphasize the consequences employees face when they don’t follow the rules: “Do your best, be honest, and treat each other and the company with respect.Do this and we’ll all get along fine! Don’t and it’ll be time to find yourself another job.”

Fellow panel member, Vicki K. Kuhn, PHR-CA, HR manager for Fugate Enterprises, a company that operates fast food restaurants such as Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, customized her mini handbook for restaurant employees: “We’re here to run good restaurants so be clean, polite and don’t steal.Practice the golden rule and common sense and don’t touch others.”

Some who chimed in to the LinkedIn discussion emphasized the importance of personal responsibility and included advice such as “do the right thing” and “do your best to enjoy life.”

Bob Mosby, strategic account manager at the staffing services company Johnson Service Group Inc., included a list of priorities in his submission: “You are president and CEO of your work performance,” he told SHRM Online. “Success formula: customers first, company and colleagues second, self third. Always do your best for others.”

And Elliot Echlov, an information technology professional for a South Carolina-based health care organization, provided an employee’s take on an ideal 25-word handbook: “Be honest. Be ethical. Take ownership. Take responsibility. Share knowledge. Think differently. Work together. Be professional.”

Keep It Simple

Twenty-five words might not be enough to communicate everything an organization needs its employees to know, but HR professionals said simple is good.

Phyllis Hartman, SPHR, president of the HR firm PGHR Consulting, Inc., in Pittsburgh, said a handbook should be only the length necessary to communicate expectations clearly. “Detailed policies can be developed and provided to those who want or need them,” she told SHRM Online. “In today's world of rapid, constant change, having too much in writing can defeat employees and companies!”

Dawn M. Adams, PHR, owner of the Hartland, Wis.-based consulting firm HResults, and member of SHRM’s employee relations panel, said that employee handbooks should be “strong enough that they set the rules, yet broad enough that they don't handcuff managers to one set procedure.”

HR manager and SHRM panel member David J. Koesters, SPHR, agreed. “While it’s important to do things right, it is more important for a company to do the right thing based upon the circumstances,” he said. “The handbook is a guideline that allows a manager flexibility to do the right thing in a given situation based upon the facts.”

Fellow panel member Darlene J. Porter, SPHR, senior manager, talent management/employee relations, for AFLAC in Columbus, Ga., added that policies and handbooks should be “as simple as the company culture and employee mind-set will allow.”

Her mini handbook gives employees the answer to the “what’s in it for me?” question: “Work is a partnership. If you do your job to your best ability the company can share the rewards of mutual success with you.”

“Extensive HR policies and procedures only allow individuals to abdicate their personal responsibility and deflect people being fully human at work,” said Patti Digh, a management consultant, speaker and author from Asheville, N.C. Her message to employees? “Be kinder than necessary. Speak truth to power. Create your best job. Respect the company’s assets. Be your own boss. Learn from your mistakes.”

Why Handbooks Rarely Are Simple

Although the idea of a 25-word handbook might be appealing to employers—and employees— employment laws often prescribe requirements that make such brevity a challenge.

Every policy in a handbook can have legal implications, Devora L. Lindeman, senior counsel for the management-side law firm Greenwald Doherty LLP in New York, told SHRM Online. “Even with appropriate ‘the handbook is not a contract’ language, policies should not be worded as guarantees, and no benefits should be provided without employer flexibility to change them.”

In the United States some policies have more specific legal implications than others, such as “discrimination and harassment policies, Family and Medical Leave Act and other leave policies, computer and phone use policies (which should include an express disclaimer of privacy and indicator of potential monitoring) and social media/blogging policies,” she said.

Employment-at-will statements “are key, keeping in mind that states such as California differ as to requirements,” Lindeman said. “Depending on state law, certain wage and hour policies, as well as policies regarding benefits such as vacation and sick leave, are required to be in writing.”

Kuhn said a certain level of detail is essential. “Because I want to keep our unemployment rates as low as possible as a part of payroll costs, sometimes I have to be very, very picky—to the point of insanity—[about] what is in the handbook.”

Anderson acknowledged that there are some policies that require extensive detail but suggested a compromise approach: “Keep the majority of it simple [and] easy for employees to understand, and allow organizations to have flexibility/discretion in most of the policies.”

“Handbooks are both a sword and a shield for employers – but only if properly drafted,” Lindeman said. “Any handbook should be reviewed by legal counsel familiar with the local laws to ensure that the handbook provides the employer with the protections they need.”

Yet if she could draft a 25-word handbook, Lindeman said, it might read something like this: “Act like you want to be here. Do your job well to be rewarded. Fail, and be fired. Play nice. Do no harm.”

Getting Employees to Sign Off

Regardless of whether a particular organization’s employee handbook is detailed or succinct, it will generally be accompanied by an acknowledgement form that employees—new and old—are expected to sign. In addition to noting that the handbook is not a contract, is subject to change and provides no guarantee of continuing employment, most forms ask employees to affirm that they “have read and understand” the contents of the handbook.

But depending on when the handbook and form are given out, an employee might not have had the opportunity to read it. For that or other reasons, the employee might be reluctant to sign the form.

That’s why Lindeman said that employee handbook acknowledgement forms should require employees to confirm that the handbook has been received, that they will read the handbook and that they know that they are responsible for understanding and complying with the contents. “This should be distributed within an employee's first few days of employment,” she said, after providing the employee with an opportunity to read through the handbook.

Porter agreed and said that in her organization the handbook acknowledgement form is used to acknowledge that the employee received the document and that the policies and procedures apply whether an employee signs the form or not.

The form Anderson’s organization uses takes a similar approach and says, in part, “I understand and agree that it is my responsibility to read and familiarize myself with the provisions of the employee handbook and to abide by the rules, policies and standards set forth in the employee handbook.”

According to Adams, employees should have a reasonable time period in which to read the handbook. Her organization’s form says “I understand that it is my responsibility to read its contents within seven calendar days of my hire date and understand its contents. If I have any questions or concerns with its contents or other issues related to my employment, it is my responsibility to raise them.”

But some employees, whether new to the organization or not, refuse to sign such a form.

“If an employee refuses to sign the acknowledgement of receipt of the company policies, especially if it's a new employee, this action is an indication that the employee sees him/herself as above the company's laws,” Frances O'Malley-Saxton of FOS Consulting LLC in Lake Orion, Mich. told SHRM Online. “Even if you have the signatures of witnesses of this signature refusal, by allowing him or her not to sign you're sending the message that the employee is in a stronger position to manage you; not the other way around.”

“I have never had an employee refuse to sign,” Anderson noted. But if she did, she said, she would respond by reminding the employee that they are still responsible for following the policies in the handbook and would make a note in the employee’s file that the employee refused to sign but was educated about the policies.

Kuhn said her employees must acknowledge that they have read the handbook and agree to abide by it: “If they refuse to sign the acknowledgement, then they don’t work for us.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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  • Employee Handbooks: Making Every Word Count
  • You’ll Love Working Here! The Performance Power of Workplace Culture
  • People Are Your Business

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