Guest post by Kate Bischoff, Employment Lawyer & HR Consultant
Shoved deep in some desks of supervisors and employees, the employee handbook resides. For some, the handbook has lived in this dark corner of the workplace for years without a thought or care. In other workplaces, the handbook rests right there on the desk, enjoys frequent reading, and is referenced when needed. Where does your employee handbook live?
Lawyers, like me, love handbooks (I’m not joking). Handbooks set expectations—both employer and employee expectations. Take, for example, one of the most important policies: sexual harassment. From this singular policy, employers can expect employees not to engage in sexual-harassing conduct, and employees can expect the employer to do something about it. Employees learn what the employer defines as sexual harassment and how employees can report it if they see, hear, or otherwise experience it. And, as a bonus for lawyers, we can use the policy to protect the employer if a claim is ever raised.
Employee handbooks take on all shapes and sizes. Some are true tree-killers, coming in at over 100 pages. Others are on smartphone apps available at employee fingertips 24-7, with links to forms that an employee might need. Here are a couple of tips for all handbooks:
Make Them Readable & Accessible
Some of the best advice I ever received was “write for fourth graders.” This is especially true for handbooks. While all of your employees might be post-graduate-degree holders, a handbook with too much legalese, jargon, or seven-syllable words is not going to be understood by most. If you write it to a fourth grader, your employees (and potential jurors) can better understand it. It’s accessible and, therefore, meaningful.
Handbooks Should Contain Only What’s Necessary
Hundred-page handbooks make my heart hurt. Employees are probably not going to read such tomes, even though they acknowledge an in-depth reading at the start of employment. Plus, with such detail, it is unlikely that the employer is doing everything it says it will do in a handbook of that size. An at-will employment statement, harassment, discrimination, retaliation, leave (and FMLA, if it applies), and some state-specific policies are the only policies employers must include. My favorite add-on policy is “use good judgment in all situations.” It pretty much covers everything else.
Use Your Handbook!
If you say you’re going to do something in your handbook, do it. Forgetting, picking and choosing, or actively working against what’s in your handbook hurts you and your people, because you show that the handbook doesn’t mean what it says. This breeds mistrust and resentment among employees. You don’t want this, even though you have the power to change the handbook at any time, with or without notice.
Talk About Your Handbooks with Employees
Employees should have a handbook available to them. They also should have a member of management, including HR, available to answer questions about what’s in there. Walk through the handbook with new employees. Hold a meeting to discuss changes when you make them. Being open and honest about what’s in there helps create an environment of trust.
Update, Update, Update
One last thing, please update your employee handbook. Run it past your friendly neighborhood employment lawyer. Like life, employment law moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around at it once in a while, you could miss it. In all seriousness, new requirements are made all the time. Being out of compliance is easy if you don’t regularly have someone take a look.
Handbooks are creatures of culture. If your handbook sets a tone of doom and gloom, that will be reflected in your culture. Think about this when you draft, revise, and rollout a handbook. Find the right person to work with you to make your handbook a useful tool that employees look at, value, and don’t shove into the dark recesses of their desks.