Employee handbooks are the go-to guide to how things work at your organization. A well-written handbook should lay down the expectations, rules, and regulations of your organization to help employees perform their jobs with confidence.
The handbook must address the “need to know” information for employees to thrive at your organization while also including crucial, legally mandated information on compensation procedures, employees’ rights, leave policies, and other labor and employment laws.
Besides providing useful information and instilling confidence in your organization’s employees, having an up-to-date and compliant handbook can help you avoid and defend against potential litigation.
What should be included in an employee handbook?
Your employee handbook has three key goals:
- To add color to your organization’s culture, values, and mission.
- To explicate legally mandated information — like federal, state, and local employment laws — that will protect your employees from penalization and your organization from litigation.
- To address common questions and concerns that employees may have so that they can confidently perform their jobs and have a written point of reference as to their rights and responsibilities.
“The value [of an employee handbook] is that employees can understand what is expected of them and what they can expect from the company,” Paul Rowson, Managing Director at World at Work, told Inc. “This includes how pay decisions are arrived at, how they are rated on their performance, how the company treats things like sick leave and other benefits, how the company views work-life programs and how they will be treated in a dispute.”
Suffice to say, employee handbooks contain a massive amount of information — so much so that they are often met by employees with angst.
Here are four tips to mitigate any confusion and make your organization’s handbook as helpful and straightforward as possible.
Make clear that handbook does not equal contract
Your employee handbook must include a disclaimer clarifying that it is not a contract for employment and does not affect the employee’s at-will employment.
If your handbook fails to include this language, it could inadvertently create a contract and be considered a legally binding document.
Your disclaimer should include language explaining that the handbook does not represent contractual terms of employment and that employment at your organization is at-will.
Update often based on employment law changes
The bulk of your employee handbook will be dedicated to legalese — including information on relevant federal, state, and local laws labor and employment laws. Importantly, laws change often, and your organization must regularly monitor changes to relevant laws and be sure that they are reflected in employee policies.
To this end, handbooks should include a disclaimer that policies may be subject to change. Your handbook should also include language clarifying that it cannot and does not address all situations that may arise in the workplace. This will give you some flexibility when it comes to addressing isolated or unique incidents and accounting for new laws.
Avoid unnecessary legal jargon
Employee handbooks need to outline state and federal employment policies regarding employment and nondiscrimination, family and medical leave, and workers’ compensation. However, just because a portion of the handbook is dedicated to labor and employment laws doesn’t mean that it needs to be in the weeds.
If you want to make sure your employees are reading and comprehending the handbook, it’s crucial that its content be engaging and not entirely bogged down in confusing legalese. Keep your handbook concise and use an active voice when describing relevant laws. You should also avoid going into unnecessary detail about how policies play out — like describing each step of how HR addresses payroll questions or complaints. Include the necessary legal information and encourage employees to ask questions about any laws or procedures they may not understand.
Obtain proof of acknowledgment
Requiring employees to sign a document stating that they have received, read, and understand the contents of your organization’s handbook can help ensure that they actually take the time to read it.
Prior to signing the document, employees should have the opportunity to ask and have answered any questions they may have about the handbook’s contents.
Not only does a written acknowledgment implore new employees to familiarize themselves with the handbook — it establishes liability should an employee break a policy and claim that they were not made aware of it.
SPECIAL EVENT: On April 13th join us for The Basics of Building an Employee Handbook webinar.
About the Author
Lia Tabackman is a freelance journalist, copywriter, and social media strategist based in Richmond, Virginia. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, CBS 6 News, the Los Angeles Times, and Arlington Magazine, among others. She writes weekly nonprofit-specific content for 501c.com.