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Does Your Employee Handbook Need an Update?

Does Your Employee Handbook Need an Update?
Credit: RHIMAGE/Shutterstock

When you hear "employee handbook," you probably think of a thick packet of strict guidelines governing what workers can and can't do, how they should dress, and what's expected of them in a big corporate office. While a handbook can and should be much more than an outline of a company's rules, regulations and punishments, it's easy to see why this important document has earned that rules-obsessed reputation over the years.

"Antiquated employee handbooks [are based on] an ideal of progressive disciplinary or corrective action policies," said Melinda Figeley, vice president of HR consulting services at benefits solutions provider NFP. "They tend to reflect an old culture where an employee is warned verbally, and if the conduct or performance issue happens again, there are written warnings followed by termination."

Figeley noted that employers often put these types of employee handbook policies in place to protect themselves from lawsuits and employee grievances. However, such rules can get employers into even more trouble if the companies don't enforce their own policies, she said. Most employers end up not following the policy they've published to the letter because it creates a step-by-step process that isn't appropriate for every employee in every situation, and this can create serious issues in the workplace.

"Handbooks need to have a policy where performance and conduct on the job is evaluated individually based on the circumstances, such as employee work history, severity and frequency of the problem, and what would best impress upon this employee the need for change," Figeley told Business News Daily. "Every situation is different, and [handbooks] need flexibility instead of a step-by-step formula for handling performance problems."

But outdated disciplinary policies aren't the biggest problem today's companies have with their employee handbooks. Most small businesses don't actually have a formal handbook for their staff's reference. Michael Pires, vice president of ADP HR Solutions, said that although companies are not required by law to have handbooks, they are required to have written policies on various federal and state labor laws, such as Equal Employment Opportunity (EOO), the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

"A handbook becomes a way to package that in a really professional way," Pires said. "It shows employees that you take your business seriously, and also sets a standard for the employer and employees for how to handle [certain situations]. It's a critical tool and resource to help manage an organization."

If you're creating a formal employee handbook for the first time, Figeley and Pires advised including the following essential policies:

  • FLSA classification or exemption status policy
  • FMLA coverage eligibility and other leaves of absence (i.e., jury duty), as well as the rights and responsibilities of employees and employer
  • EOO policy
  • Anti-bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination policies
  • "Employment at will" disclaimer (required by 23 states)
  • Time and attendance expectations
  • Personal time off/vacation time allowed
  • Payroll schedules, deductions and processes (from employee perspective)
  • Handling of workplace safety and accidents
  • Benefits offerings, where applicable

For the "modern office," technology and remote work policies should also have a place in employee handbooks. The guides should clearly spell out use of BYOD versus employer-owned equipment, as well as any privacy expectations surrounding corporate data. Figeley said your handbook should include policies around special work arrangements such as telecommuting and flex time, and Pires recommended a social media policy outlining some basic guidelines for how an employee should represent your brand on public social networks.

If you're creating an employee handbook for the first time, don't try to go it alone, Pires said. There are plenty of tools to help you create a handbook, such as online employee handbook wizards from companies like ADP. While there are numerous templates available online, and plenty of existing company handbooks to use as models, be aware that your handbook should take into account your unique business needs and circumstances.

"Don't [assume] generic policies you've downloaded or borrowed from someone you know are going to have the appropriate language or content for your business, because chances are it doesn't," Pires said. "Think about getting the right experts involved to guide you through the process. If you're flying solo without the right expertise, it can be really difficult."

Most importantly, when crafting your handbook, remember that its primary purpose is to engage and motivate your employees.

"An employee handbook [should] inspire, motivate and guide employees," Figeley said. "It does need to take risk mitigation into account, but its primary purpose is to introduce employees to your culture, people and history. [Explain] what you're doing and how they are a part of that. It should be a method of acculturating or socializing employees into an organization, and getting them excited about working [with you]."

Originally published on Business News Daily

Nicole Fallon

Nicole received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. Nicole served as the site's managing editor until January 2018, and briefly ran Business.com's copy and production team. Follow her on Twitter.