They say one of the best-run organizations in the world is the U.S. Army — largely due to its leadership, structured environment and strict rules.
While the Army has a rule book dictating nearly everything, your business probably doesn’t need anything that drastic. A well-thought-out employee handbook should do the trick — one that clearly sets expectations for behavior and performance, and outlines the repercussions for not meeting them.
First and foremost, an employee handbook is a roadmap for your personnel, giving them clarity on their job responsibilities as well as providing the rules of the road of their employment. It’s also a guidebook for business, providing everything from conduct standards and company benefits to performance parameters and steps for corrective action.
An up-to-date handbook is an excellent compliance tool, too. It can help you keep up with the myriad federal, state and local employment laws that cover everything from jury duty and military leave to rest breaks and meal periods.
Just as important, a well-crafted employee handbook is a powerful defense against legal claims. A comprehensive handbook demonstrates that company policies are in compliance with federal, state and local laws. For better or worse, assume your handbook will be entered as evidence in any employee litigation.
While an employee handbook should be thorough, avoid making it unmanageably long and full of HR jargon. Similarly, steer clear of detailed policies you will have trouble enforcing (or don’t intend to enforce at all). These additional guidelines will help you develop an appropriate and effective handbook:
Start with culture. Want employee buy-in for your vision and mission? Start by introducing them to your business philosophy and values — what you are passionate about, what you do that sets you apart, how the company got to where it is and where it hopes to go next.
Show them how it’s done. Next, cover the workplace basics. Guide employees on how to dress appropriately, request time off from work, maintain confidential information, use electronic resources, etc.
Talk about trouble. Explain the types of conduct that can get employees in trouble, including drug and alcohol abuse, harassment and viewing inappropriate material online. Be sure to let them know this is not an exclusive list and that you reserve the right to discipline or fire an employee. At the same time, make it known how you are prepared to help. For example, your business may provide substance abuse counseling or access to an employee assistance program.
Provide a go-to for grievances. Employees should know who they can turn to if they need to resolve an issue. For example, specify a contact for reporting harassment and how to go about it, as well as how you will investigate complaints and take certain actions. Specify there will be no retaliation against any employee for filing a complaint.
In today’s digital workplace, you’ll need to spell out policies for use of email, the internet and social networking sites. If you intend to monitor these platforms, you must inform employees their at-work communications are not private and may be read.
Avoid anything that sounds like a promise. Avoid statements that can be construed as a promise. For example, language that implies employees will always have a job as long as they follow the rules. A terminated employee could later argue this represents a contract of employment. In states where employment is considered to be “at will” (the employee can quit for any reason and may be terminated for any legal cause), a disclaimer to that effect is a smart addition.
Get sign-off. Your company policies provide no protection if there’s no evidence that employees were made aware of them. Always get a signed acknowledgement. And make sure the handbook is easily accessible (printed copies and an electronic version online).
Keep it current. Your handbook should be a living document. That means reviewing and updating it regularly, and ensuring compliance with constantly changing employment laws. Always keep a copy of your old handbooks. In the event of litigation, you’ll want a copy of the employee handbook that was in effect at the time the incident in question occurred.
Finally, avoid the temptation to download a boilerplate document from the internet or copy another employer's handbook. Ultimately, your employee handbook should be tailored to your organization and how you conduct business. Getting appropriate legal counsel and publishing a well-written, professional-looking handbook is money well spent.