Shari's Solutions: Handbook Headache

Advice on all things HR from Shari Lau, SHRM-SCP, SHRM’s knowledge manager. E-mail your questions to Shari at AskShari@shrm.org.

By Dec 1, 2015

What should we do if an employee refuses to sign the handbook acknowledgment?

I’ve been asked this question many times and, before I answer it, I want to make an important point: What we seek with a handbook acknowledgment is employees’ understanding, not their agreement. In other words, as long as our policies are legal, we don’t require people to approve of them. However, if we fail to notify workers of our rules, we’ll be hard-pressed to take action against them when they don’t comply.

For example, no judge will ask a complainant-employee “Did you agree with that rule in the handbook?” Instead, the judge will inquire “Were you aware of that rule?” Then it will be up to the worker to explain his or her apparent disregard for your policy. That’s why we need to demonstrate only that workers have been given the information.

Here are options you could exercise if an employee refuses to sign:

  • Consider refusal to be insubordination and discipline the employee, up to and including termination. Be aware, however, that if you choose this action, you must apply it to both your best and your worst employees.
  • Don’t require signatures at all, since neither they nor handbooks are required by law. Personally, I consider this approach about as useful as spitting into the wind. It serves no purpose, and it seems to almost guarantee that something nasty is going to come back at you.
  • Have HR indicate on the acknowledgment that the employee was given the information but refused to sign, and have a witness, in the presence of the worker, provide a signature to verify that. A variation of this would be to have the employee sign his own refusal; this shows that the person was given the information and must have based his refusal on understanding it—so, mission accomplished.

However, there are some other things you might do. For example, you could determine why exactly the employee refuses to sign. Is there a specific policy he disagrees with? If there’s any substance to the disagreement, review the policy and determine whether it should be adjusted.

You should also make sure your handbook and at-will acknowledgment statements don’t run afoul of the 2012 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) guidance. Any declaration that implies that an at-will relationship cannot be modified violates the National Labor Relations Act, because such a statement would preclude union activity. That may be what’s stopping some employees from signing.

If you haven’t yet read the NLRB’s March 2015 guidance (Memorandum GC 15-04), do so before asking any employee to sign off on a handbook. It gives clear examples of language that should and should not be used and will be eye-opening for many. Then, review and revise your handbook accordingly.

If only one or two people refuse to sign, choosing one of the options above will hold you in good stead. But if many are refusing, it’s time for a full investigation into why. The fault may lie on your side of the desk.

How can we help employees who feel blue during the holidays?

While this is the season of joy for many, it’s not uncommon for people to feel down, or even depressed, at this time of year. Perhaps this is the first holiday that some employees are spending without loved ones, or they can’t afford certain presents, or they are lonely. Often, people who are already suffering from clinical depression feel worse around the holidays; they may feel pressured to live up to an ideal of family harmony or personal happiness that doesn’t match their current reality. Whether temporary or long-term, the blues can be made worse at work. Here’s what you can do to help.

First, remind employees about your company’s employee assistance program (EAP). Given that the first few sessions are often free, an EAP is a good option for all, even those who are not sure they need it. Remind your managers to be on the lookout for symptoms of holiday blues, such as tardiness, lack of concentration and crying, and advise them to communicate the availability of the EAP.

Whatever you do, never try to “fix” depressed employees by saying “Smile!” or “Cheer up!” Don’t suggest that they can rediscover happiness by attending the holiday party or decorating their office space. Trust me, it will not make them feel better.

It’s not that a depressed individual can’t remember how to do the things we associate with contentment, it’s that they can’t do them and feel happy. Even when your intentions are good, suggesting such things can seem patronizing and intrusive. Instead, demonstrate empathy and availability by saying, “You’re a great person, and I’m here for you if you want to talk.” Educate your managers on this as well.

For those who want to participate, department celebrations can help some employees feel more connected, and encouraging employees to include other co-workers can lead to more compassion and teamwork. Organizing a volunteer event may also help, since assisting others can take people’s minds off their own troubles. However, make sure all holiday activities are optional.

Do you have any tips for creating successful employee volunteer programs?

Employee volunteer programs can encompass anything from sponsoring a once-a-year event with Habitat for Humanity to supporting employees who have made long-term commitments to serve on the boards of community nonprofits. According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s2015 Employee Benefits research report, 48 percent of organizations offer a volunteer program of some kind, with 21 percent providing paid time off to participate.

While some programs have been around forever and survive only by inertia, others are carefully designed to link to strategic goals, with measurable deliverables. When creating a plan for a new employee volunteer program, consider the following basics:

Understand the “why.” Are you trying to address low employee attitude scores? Improve retention? Bolster the employer brand to attract more quality hires? (Corporate citizenship surveys show that, with all else being equal, people prefer to work for a company associated with a good cause.) New program ideas go nowhere fast when you don’t link them to a key business goal. Gain executive support by demonstrating that connection and the potential reward.

Select the measurements. You can use the metrics you are already capturing, such as turnover and retention, quality of hire, time-to-fill, and employee attitude surveys, to determine the value of your volunteer program. Participation in the plan can also mean reaching professional development goals, including leadership development when employees volunteer in a high-level governance capacity. Without measurements, you won’t be able to show the success of or identify areas of improvement for the program.

Collect employee feedback. It’s also important to hear from individual employees about their experience—such as whether it had any on-the-job impact. For example, people who participate for extrinsic reasons only (because it looks good on their review, for example) will likely not feel more engaged at work. Those who are intrinsically motivated, however, are likely embarking on an inward journey that will lead to personal fulfillment—which they will bring back to the workplace with them.

In addition, regularly collecting employee feedback can often show less-obvious benefits of the program, such as demonstrating an employee’s maturity or commitment to the company.

Shari Lau, SHRM-SCP, is the knowledge manager for SHRM’s HR Knowledge Center. E-mail your questions to AskShari@shrm.org.

SEMINARS

HR Education in a City Near You

Find a Seminar

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You

SPONSOR OFFERS

Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies

Search & Connect