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Writing an Employee Handbook Is Not for the Faint of Heart

A man in a suit and tie posing for a photo.
Allan H. Weitzman of Proskaur Rose.

SAN DIEGO—What you don’t include in your employee handbook can hurt you—or at least leave you vulnerable to an employee lawsuit, according to Allan H. Weitzman, a partner and head of the employment law team at Proskaur Rose in Boca Raton, Fla.

And that’s true even though most workers aren’t on the lookout for ways to rip off their employer or exploit their company’s good will.

Speaking here June 28, 2010, at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 62nd Annual Conference & Exposition, Weitzman urged organizations to use their employee handbooks as a shield against slackers and malcontents whose efforts to rip off their employer, in the absence of a carefully crafted policy guide, would otherwise go unfettered.

The first rule of writing an effective policy guide, according to Weitzman, is to disabuse employees of any notion that it is an employment contract or that any of the benefits spelled out are guaranteed.

“Make sure your handbook is not an employment contract,” he said.

Under certain conditions, handbooks might “create an implied contract of employment,” he warned. To minimize risk, he recommended that employers eliminate any language that might be perceived as creating rights against termination at will.

Many employment policies are governed by state and federal laws. But even in instances where bottom-line requirements are legislated, Weitzman urges employers to use the handbook to spell out the specifics of rules governing such things as:

  • Access to personal records.
  • Anti-nepotism or no-spouse rules.
  • Searches on employer property.
  • In-house investigations.
  • Solicitation, bulletin board and e-mail rules.
  • Travel policies.
  • Attendance, punctuality and dependability.
  • Performance evaluations.
  • Payment of wages.
  • Employer property.

Although employers in some jurisdictions are prohibited from denying employees access to their employment records, Weitzman urged employers not restricted by such laws to keep employee records under wraps. If managers know that employees might be allowed to view evaluations and other employment documents, they might not be honest, he admonished. In addition, when employees see something they don’t like, they will challenge it and start a potentially endless cycle of rebuttals, he said.

He urged employees to put specific dollar caps on reimbursement policies. A policy suggesting that employees can be reimbursed for “reasonable” costs is open to wide interpretation and could leave a company open to paying more than intended, he warned.

Still, employee handbooks are an appropriate place to describe policies designed to assist employees—even where the policy is simply to follow the minimum required under law.

Rita Zeidner is a senior writer for HR Magazine.


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