A Note About Employee Handbooks

Are you faced with several different samples of employee handbooks and now would like to know what to do with them? Writing your organization’s employee handbook for the employees working in your organization can be challenging, to say the least. Below are several thoughts to consider when writing and sharing with your employees a new employee handbook:


·         The employee handbook and the management procedures as to how to administer the policies should be two different manuals.    The employee handbook should provide the employee an organization’s basic policies and information needed to understand the policies, nothing more.  The management procedures manual should be available to assist management in carrying out the policies in the handbook as well as giving the manager more insight as to the procedure in administering any given policy.    In addition the management procedures manual should include sections on hiring, counseling, termination, employee appraisal procedures and systems as well. By having two different manuals, this can also protect you and potentially lower your organization’s liability as well in a “he said, she said” situation.


·         Language, what is said and how it is said, is so important in your employee handbook.  When writing your handbook, make sure you are keeping it in easy to read language for your employee.   Too much “legal-eze” can burden the average person and people quickly lose interest in the information you want them to know.   You can have a handbook that is user-friendly, easy to read AND be legally accurate and correct.


·         Remember that STATE labor laws and FEDERAL labor laws can be different.  If you have other states with employees in them, California for example, make sure you follow the law that is the most liberal to the advantage of the employee.   Typically that will be the state version of any given labor law.  For example, in the areas of disabilities, family leave, discrimination, harassment, and minimum wage, to name a few, California law is much more strict towards the employer and written more in favor of the employee.    THEREFORE be wary of which version of any law you follow.   You could have GREAT INTENT without meeting the legal obligations of the labor code of your state and the federal government.   Lastly, know if and/or when you fall under the federal or state government agencies that monitor discrimination within your state.      


·         When you have completed the handbook, have an attorney who specializes in labor law or a good human resource consultant review the handbook to ensure both compliance and simplicity. Things may look good and sound good yet may not be quite right, even with all the work you have put in to the handbook.   Better still, have someone review the handbook in stages, while it is a work-in-process or give the consultant your policies and let this person put language to them for you and your organization.   Again, the key is for it to be legally correct AND easy to read and understand.   One without the other is unacceptable for your employees.


·         When giving out the handbook to the employees, remember they DO NOT have to sign the acknowledgement sheets if they are currently employed.   So please do not make threats to have them fired, etc., if they elect not to sign the handbook acknowledgment pages.  Instead, have roll out meetings of the employee handbook with all your current employees going over each policy and sharing why it exists (when necessary) while adding clarification when necessary and answering questions.   In addition, have every employee sign in that they were present at the meeting.    You might even consider having lunch brought in, since this meeting will probably take about 2 hours (food always helps).   When the meeting is over, most employees will sign the acknowledgement notices in the handbook and probably some will not.   After a week has passed, send the employees a reminder note that you are still waiting for their acknowledgement notices to be signed.   Perhaps they have an addition question to ask?   Still, if a current employee does not want to sign the acknowledgement simply place a copy of the signed meeting attendance sheet in their file with a copy of the note you sent to them IN ADDITION to a second note.   In the second note, let the employee know that the policies were explained to him/her, he/she had the opportunity to ask questions, and you now expect him/her to follow them.


·         For new employees, having them take the employee handbook home, read it, sign the acknowledgements, and return them in a day or so will not suffice.    What if the new employee does not have time to read the handbook (kids are sick) and so they sign the acknowledgments with the intent of reading the handbook in the future but for some reason forgets?  Now the employee is being let go due to a policy violation, and YOU DO have a signed acknowledgement.  Is it binding?  No, the employee only has to say that “they intended to read it, yet never got the opportunity due to circumstances at home (on their own time).”  It is the employer’s responsibility to educate and train the employee.     So why not make a simple video of the handbook, even including descriptive commentary?  Require all new employees to watch the video (or you can have someone read the handbook to a new employee…yuck! and a poor use of time).    Once the video has been shown to the new employee, the manager conducting the orientation can go over the “highlights” of the handbook if he or she so elects.


·         Remember that what you DO overrides what is WRITTEN when it comes to policy.   If you say one thing in writing (as in the employee handbook) and your organization does something totally different, what is being done IS your policy versus what is in writing.  That is why it is VITAL that all management are trained and understand the importance of not trying to do what they think is right versus what policies and processes are shared and given out to your employees. In addition, MAKE SURE that what you put in writing is what you want to share with your employees, creating the climate you want expressed as well.   Doing one thing and saying (in writing) another could be construed as discrimination.


·         It is also important to know that your managers, supervisors, even supervisors in some situations, are considered “agents” of your organization.  When someone is placed in a position of authority over another person, even to simply watch over the person and make sure the work is carried out in a smooth manner, with no real authority over the employee, what the manager says and does can be used for and against the organization in a court or during a complaint.   Ignorance is NEVER an excuse.  Make sure every manager knows the policies of your organization and how to address them.    As leaders, within any level of management, we are stewards of our organization, the employees under our care and the laws as are set within our state and federal governments.   


As you begin to write your new employee handbook, these are just a few thoughts to add to your quiver.  Hopefully what has been shared will be of some assistance in navigating the journey ahead.



About the author:


Ron Smedley is president of Synergistic Resource Associates, a full-service human resource/development consulting group that works directly with both marketplace and ministry organizations.  As a professional human resource generalist, Ron is often called upon in the area of labor law interpretation and policy/procedure writing with the focus on practically, strategically, and relationally synergizing the systems of the organization with the development of their leadership and employees.  Besides consulting full-time, Ron instructs graduate adult students at Biola University and Claremont Graduate Universities within leadership, performance management, personal and corporate conflict, human resource strategy and ethics courses.


Ron’s passion is seeing men, women and organizations grow beyond their paradigm and the “box” they so often place themselves within.  For questions or support surrounding this article or other people development areas, email him at ron.smedley@sraonline.net or call 714.993.5003. His office is located in Placentia, CA.

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