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To be effective, employee handbooks must be well-structured, carefully drafted in plain language and reflective of your practices and culture.
It’s springtime and many people are going through that annual ritual of cleaning and organizing their homes. Don’t limit spring cleaning to your house; consider it for your company as well. And start with employee handbooks.
If your company policies are scattered throughout a series of memos, e-mails and other documents and there’s no one place to find the answers to policy questions (except to knock on your door), then it’s time to create an employee manual. And, if your manual has not been revised in a while—and major legislation has been passed or practices have changed since then—it’s time to compile a new or updated handbook.
Some companies are reluctant to create an employee handbook because they believe that operating without one shields them from liability.
But that can be dangerous. “Nothing will drive a worker to seek the advice of an attorney quicker than arbitrary and capricious enforcement of nonstandard or ill-defined policies,” says Linda Johnson, an employment attorney and partner with the law firm of McLane, Graf, Raulerson and Middleton in Manchester, N.H.
Even after you create and distribute your manual, don’t rest on your laurels. “Most of the big companies that have suffered discrimination lawsuits had written policies against such practices. They just didn’t always put them into action,” explains Ronald L. Adler, president of Laurdan Associates Inc., a human resource consulting company in Potomac, Md.
The secret to producing an effective handbook is to take great care in its drafting and review, include sufficient disclaimers and institute the policies as stated, according to Johnson.
You may want to first gather and review samples of employee handbooks from other HR professionals. This will help you decide what you like and determine how to structure your manual.
Most employee handbooks cover government-mandated regulations and communicate the company’s ethics, values and policies. Gather information on government-mandated regulations, existing corporate policies, union rules and other policies, and review them to make sure they are consistent with the way things are done in your company.
Adler recommends including the following sections:
Resist the temptation to include minute details about day-to-day life at your company in the handbook. “Don’t treat your handbook like an operations manual with written procedures for every aspect of your operation,” says Adler, who is also a member of the Society for Human Resource Management Employment Committee. “Operations manuals should be separate documents.”
You may need to include disclaimers in some sections. For instance, Johnson advises starting the benefits section with a disclaimer stating that the handbook contains an outline of the benefits the company may offer, and in the event of discrepancies between the handbook and insurance documents, the insurance documents supersede the handbook.
Some manuals will outline the consequences for breaking the rules, but be sure you’re prepared to follow them. “If you don’t, your manual will have no validity,” Adler says. If you include a list of offenses warranting disciplinary action, be sure to indicate that the list is not all-inclusive. When covering the disciplinary process, make it clear that the company is free to skip steps when the nature of the infraction requires more severe discipline, including termination.
If you have different classifications of employees, it may be necessary to produce separate versions of the manual, particularly if parts of your workforce are unionized. For companies that have operations around the country, include a page reflecting the conditions of employment for each state. And, for employees who speak English as a second language, you may need to provide a handbook in their native tongue.
Structuring Your Handbook
A good structure is critical to the success of your handbook, and this requires careful planning. Create a rough outline that spells out the contents and organization of your handbook. The outline will help you break the project into smaller, easy-to-tackle pieces. Use this as a guide as you write and edit your policies, but don’t hesitate to restructure your outline if you discover a more logical arrangement along the way.
The structure of your handbook depends in part on your corporate culture and the primary messages you want to convey. Wild Oats Markets Inc., a Boulder, Colo.-based firm that operates a national chain of natural foods grocery stores and employs 8,500 workers, begins its handbook with a welcome message and a summary of the company’s history, philosophy and statement of purpose. Its policies are then organized under four main headings, reflecting what Wild Oats sees as its primary areas of responsibility: to customers, to staff members, to the community and to the bottom line. “This structure reinforces our grassroots philosophy and the organic nature of our business,” says Peter Williams, vice president of human resources at Wild Oats.
Mary Cheddie, SPHR, vice president of human resources at FirstWorthing, a Dallas-based integrated real estate company with 400 employees, placed the company’s mission and value statements right up front. She wants employees to get a clear picture of the corporate philosophy before they begin reading specific policies. “This let us set the tone for the material,” says Cheddie, who is also vice chair of the Society for Human Resource Management Employment Committee.
The handbook for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. does the same thing. The hotel chain has built its success on exemplary service, so its handbook continuously reminds employees that they are “ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.”
Keep It Short, Simple
Johnson advises keeping employee handbooks brief, between 25 and 40 pages, and the content concise. “Too many details can bind you into certain responses and actions that may not be necessary,” she says. The handbook can be produced in loose-leaf or bound form, depending on how you plan to handle updates. If a significant portion of your workforce has computer access, the handbook also can be posted on your intranet or internal network.
During the writing phase, many professional writers let their ideas flow, working to get them down on paper without worrying about spelling, grammar and other details. Such matters are tended to during the editing phase, when the work is pruned and polished.
To create a reader-friendly handbook, use plain-language syntax, rather than pompous legalese. If you have trouble phrasing a policy in natural language, try explaining the policy to someone orally, then use the same wording to write that segment. A clear, conversational tone will add sparkle to the work and will make it easier for all employees to access the information they need.
Remember, it takes numerous rewrites, revisions and edits to create an effective handbook. Polish your manuscript by deleting unnecessary words and phrases, and checking grammar, spelling and punctuation. Consider contracting a professional writer to write the document or edit the final draft.
The design of your book also can increase its effectiveness. Using a simple format with plenty of white space increases readability.
Finally, don’t skimp on the production. “In many cases, this is the first company-produced document your employees will see,” Cheddie says.
Adler suggests forming a focus group to review the final draft to make sure it is clear and concise. Cheddie had her HR group, middle managers and a team of associates review FirstWorthing’s handbook. “And we made a few changes based on their input,” she says.
It’s also important to have an experienced employment attorney review the final draft. “But your handbook shouldn’t read like a legal document,” Johnson adds. “With the exception of disclaimers, which may require legal language, these handbooks should be written in natural language that your employees can easily understand.”
Make It Your Own
The most effective handbooks accurately reflect their companies’ corporate values and cultures. The Motley Fool, an Alexandria, Va.-based company specializing in educating investors, created a handbook that mirrors its freewheeling yet successful management style. It’s called “The Fool Rules! A Global Guide to Foolish Behavior.” The 20-page document is funny when discussing the company’s nonexistent vacation policy, but it’s serious and straightforward when covering topics such as sexual harassment. “We don’t have a problem getting new employees to read it. They can’t wait to get their hands on it,” says Lee Burbage, whose title is HR Jedi. (Neither can other HR professionals. The company has sold more than 4,000 copies of the document to date.)
Wild Oats Markets’s handbook also reflects the company’s unique culture. “It’s written in a tongue-in-cheek style, with interesting graphics, to tell people they can still be individuals and work for us,” says Williams.
Many HR offices turn to high-tech assistance for compiling their handbooks.
A number of policy-writing software packages are available, ranging in cost from $99 to $500. According to Shari Randall, SPHR, of Randall Resources, an HR consulting firm in San Diego, Calif., the best packages offer checklists, pull-down options, references to applicable laws, customized formats, update services, ready-to-use tables of contents and indexes, and support for creating online or intranet versions. They also let you choose a formal or informal writing style.
Randall cautions buyers to beware, however, of overly simplistic policy-writing programs and those that contain out-of-date information. If you have a package that is more than a year old, check with the vendor to see if a more recent version is available, she says.
When using such programs, ask an experienced HR professional and legal counsel to answer questions along the way and approve the final version of your manual. “Off-the-shelf programs are no substitute for knowledgeable guidance by a trained professional,” Randall says. “But a good program can reduce your costs and help you produce a manual that can be easily modified when changes are needed.”
Still, such programs aren’t for everyone. When Cheddie developed a handbook for her company she opted not to use policy-writing software. “I had used one in the past and found it too limiting. The formats were established up front and there was little flexibility,” she says.
Getting Out the Word
Make sure both existing and new employees receive copies of new or updated handbooks and sign and return the acknowledgments. Keep the acknowledgments in the employees’ personnel files.
But don’t assume that your employees have read and understood your policies just because you’ve distributed a handbook. Reinforce the messages with other forms of communication. Adler often recommends that his clients launch new handbooks with formal presentations during which they review specific policies.
Although FirstWorthing distributes its handbook to employees on their first day of work, the company also is creating a formalized employee orientation program to reinforce policies. Wild Oats Markets uses its handbook as a guide during orientation sessions.
Many companies also post online versions of their handbooks, so employees can review the most current version of the handbook, or have easy access if they have misplaced their hard copies. Even if you rely primarily on an online publication, ask employees to affix their signature to a statement acknowledging that they have reviewed the handbook. “These documents stand up much better in court than electronic acknowledgments,” says Johnson. When revising the online publications, most companies notify employees through an e-mail with a link to the handbook. Supervisors distribute printed handbooks and revisions to employees who don’t have electronic access.
Keep It Current
Decide who will be responsible for making changes and how they will be handled. Review your handbook at least once a year for any necessary revisions.
If your handbook is in a loose-leaf folder, you can produce and distribute replacement pages, advising employees to remove and destroy the old ones. Or, you can make changes to the online manual and make sure employees understand that it is the most current version. When distributing a new handbook, collect and destroy the old ones so you won’t have outdated information floating around. A current handbook will prove invaluable in clarifying policies, answering employee questions and integrating workers into your corporate culture.
Betty Sosnin is a freelance writer based in Augusta, Ga.
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