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Michael Haberman
  March 22, 2019

Employee Handbooks Revisited: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t

I read an article today where the author was talking about the Top Five Small Business Trends to Monitor in 2019. The fifth trend was Consistent And Transparent Employee Communication. The “I have found creating an up-to-date employee handbook that is readily accessible will benefit both upper management and employees.” I agree! I wrote this post on employee handbooks in September of 2010 and it is still relevant today. So let’s revisit Employee handbooks: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

In my consulting practice (which is geared primarily toward small businesses) I see and revise, or write, a lot of employee handbooks. Some are well done, most are generally not. Few are recently revised and most are out of date, woefully out of date. Even in some larger companies keeping you handbook current can be a challenge in a rapidly changing legislative environment.

I occasionally run into a company that feels they don’t need to have an employee handbook. To them, I explain that they are missing a superb communication piece that not only helps them comply with many legislative requirements but can help them communicate culture and expectations. Other times I run into companies which have handbooks that are so legalistic that even I have a hard time understanding them. To them, I also explain they are missing a superb communication opportunity.

Another common mistake I see is that rather than having a handbook to guide employees the company produces a “policy and procedures” manual. This is a mistake. A P&P; manual is great for supervisors and managers to be able to understand the actions they must take regarding employee interactions and behaviors. It is, however, not something you want to give to your employees. A P&P; manual will by its nature be too wordy and complicated for what you are trying to accomplish.

Here are some tips that I have learned about employee handbooks that you may find helpful:

  1. Remember it is a communication tool. It should be written at a level to enhance understanding by your employees. It should also be written to communicate your culture. One of the best I ever saw at doing this was one written a number of years ago by The Motely Fools. It matched the culture perfectly.
  2. Remember, there are compliance issues that need to be dealt with, such as FMLA, harassment, USERRA, etc. But these do not have to be presented in a legalistic manner.
  3. Remember this is NOT a contract and you do not want it to be. So a good review by an attorney is a good idea.
  4. Remember you do need to have some disclaimers in there, such as NOT a Contract, Employment-at-Will, and management’s right to change policies without notice.
  5. Remember to have an Acknowledgement signed. The unemployment office will ask if the employee knew the rules.
  6. Remember, special agreements, such as non-disclosures or arbitration agreements need to be separate documents and not buried in a handbook.
  7. Remember to try to present things in using positive language. Make it more about the “do’s” of proper behavior rather than the “don’ts”.
  8. And lastly, train your supervisors and managers on what is in the handbook! And have a procedures manual for them on what to do when confronted with a situation.

Of one thing I am certain. You must have an employee handbook. You may have to dance around some issues if it is poorly done, but more often than not, the FAILURE TO HAVE A HANDBOOK will get you in trouble many more times than when you have one.

I am sure I have missed a number of good ideas. What are they? Let me know.

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