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The Employee Handbook: A Perennial Headache

Keep it concise, understandable and in line with current laws

It’s right up there with doing income taxes or spring cleaning: writing or updating the employee handbook. 

It can be tedious, but it’s necessary. Changes to federal and state employment laws make updating the resource even more critical, HR managers and labor lawyers say.

HR managers and consultants offer the same general advice for both small and large companies creating or updating an employee handbook: 

  • Keep it concise and understandable, or employees won’t read it. 
  • Make sure the language is broad enough to provide wiggle room for workers and management, but not so broad that you start running afoul of state and federal labor laws.
  • Ensure that the details—hours, holiday and vacation rules, anti-harassment policies—are spelled out clearly. 
  • Use the handbook to introduce the company—along with its history and culture—to new workers as a way of establishing a positive employer-employee relationship. 
  • Employee handbooks “protect the employer and inform the employee of what’s expected of them in their time there,” said Claire Bissot, business development manager in the St. Louis office of CBIZ, a professional services company.

In addition, the handbook should spell out “what kind of environment you offer to employees,” said Monica Diacopoulos, who is in the process of rewriting the employee handbook for Family Hospice and Palliative Care in Pittsburgh, where she is vice president of human resources. 

For example, Diacopoulos, who as a consultant wrote handbooks for large and small companies, wants Family Hospice’s guide to make employees feel comfortable about taking grievances to managers. “Sometimes [the tone of] handbooks is very punitive in nature,” which does not create a positive working environment for a new employee, she said.

What must be included in an employee handbook? Beth P. Zoller, legal editor at Brightmine™ HR & Compliance Centre, recommends:

  • A statement of commitment to diversity and inclusion.
  • A policy detailing procedures for employee discipline, including in cases when workplace anti-violence rules are violated, as well as a complaint procedure for employees with gripes against co-workers or managers.
  • A policy on company confidentiality and whistle-blowers.
  • An employment-at-will policy.
  • Drug and alcohol policies, including drug-testing policies.
  • Fair employment practices policies, including equal employment opportunity and anti-harassment policies.
  • Leave and time-off policies, including for family and medical leave.
  • A policy on social media use. 
  • Attendance policies and procedures for timekeeping.
  • Work hours, overtime and benefits policies—though the specifics should be detailed in a separate document, managers and lawyers advise.

Changes in the law mean employee handbooks must be updated regularly. 

For example, gay marriage laws enacted in some states mean that the company may want to spell out health coverage benefits for same-sex spouses—though companies may also decide to cover domestic partners even if the couple is not married, Diacopoulos said. 

And recently enacted state medical marijuana laws mean companies may need to update their drug-testing policy, Bissot said. However, she noted that employees can’t be high at the office, even if they have qualified for medical marijuana use.

The increased use of social media and electronics has also forced HR managers to revise their companies’ employee handbooks. Increasingly, companies are including in policy manuals statements that employees “don’t have an expectation of privacy” when using social media at work or on work devices, said Susan Thompson, HR director at Arnstein & Lehr, a Chicago-based law firm. Workers should be aware that if they use the Internet or e-mail from a work computer, it may be monitored, she explained.

And whether employees use their own IT devices or the company’s, they need to be aware of security concerns, added lawyer Joshua Druckerman, whose New York-based firm, White Harris PLLC, deals exclusively with the management side of labor law. “Employees are the biggest cybersecurity risk a company faces, and it is important to have a staff that understands the risks of downloading an app onto a phone containing employer information or clicking a link in an unsolicited e-mail,” he said. Companies would be wise to specify in the employee handbook security risks and actions workers should take to minimize them.

Scott Watson, managing partner at the Chicago office of law firm Quarles & Brady LLP, said that, from a legal standpoint, it’s important to avoid using language in the handbook that boxes the company in. Instead of saying the company “shall” or “will” do something (such as awarding bonuses), companies should use the word “may,” Watson said. “You don’t want to sound contractual.”

Finally, it’s important to ensure that employees have read the current handbook, perhaps by having them sign an acknowledgment, Watson said. 

Susan Milligan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.


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