Your Employee Handbook: Answer Warehouse, Communication Tool, and Insurance Policy

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Written By: Scott R. Thomas

Do you get bombarded with questions from employees about the same topics, over and over again?  Are you plagued with situations where information given by one supervisor conflicts with that given by another supervisor?  Are you summoned to referee disputes between employees who claim that someone is being treated differently? If so, peace awaits.  The answer is your Employee Handbook.

Many employers resist the idea of creating an Employee Handbook.  To be sure, putting it together is a lot of work.  But that work pays dividends, year in and year out.  And it can even act like an insurance policy!  First, let’s consider the advantages.

One function of the Employee Handbook is to serve as a repository for all the answers to the questions employees like to ask.  “Do we get Arbor Day off?”  “Can I take off a quarter of a sick day to go to a doctor’s appointment?”  “Why does Jeff get ten days’ vacation and I get only five?”  The Employee Handbook can be your storehouse of all the information employees need to understand the benefits they have.  Employees want to know about holidays, sick days, vacation days, outside employment, jury duty, funeral leave, breaks, meal breaks, inclement weather, paydays, and everything else you can imagine.  Put it all in one place and your knee-jerk response can be: “What’s the Employee Handbook say?”  The amount of questions you have to answer on the fly will plummet. 

The Employee Handbook is a living document.  Have you ever gotten a question from an employee premised on some past action the company took, e.g., “Are we going to be let off early for Halloween like we were last year?”   Properly maintained, the Employee Handbook can grow with you and your company.  Many employers keep a log of issues that come up that were not addressed in the Employee Handbook.  The company then studies these items and decides whether the issue is likely to crop up again down the road.  If the question is likely to resurface, or there’s a benefit to memorializing the decision, it makes sense to amend the Employee Handbook to include the new policy. 

All that said, the Employee Handbook is not an Employee Bill of Rights.  Of course, the Employee Handbook tells the employees things they want to know.  But it also tells them the things you want them to know: telephone courtesy, the difference between full time and part time, cell phone usage, personal appearance, etc.  If it’s important to you, put it in there.

“Must,” not “may.”  Your Employee Handbook is not the place for wiggle room.  If you want an employee to do something, phrase that task as an obligation.  Some handbooks express the employer’s desire with a gentle “should,” as in “The employee ‘should’ call the supervisor as soon as he knows he will be absent or late.”  If you want the employee to do it, phrase the obligations not as a “should do” but a “must do.”  If it’s important enough to you that you want it in the manual, make it mandatory.  If the employee falls short of the requirement, you can always decide whether—as a matter of your discretion—you want to let the employee slide.  But keep all the discretion on your side of the table, not the employees’. 

“May, not “will.”  When it comes to your obligations, on the other hand, give yourself some latitude.  You don’t want to set your own obligations in concrete.  For example, there is no law that requires you to set out in an Employee Handbook such as “Every November 1, the Company will provide each employee with a written performance evaluation on which any compensation adjustments will be made.”  Say you put that burden on yourself and then an unforeseen circumstance makes it impossible to make the requirement.  A few weeks later, you get a complaint from a disgruntled employee: “The Company was supposed to give me a written performance evaluation but failed to do so; if the Company evaluated my performance, I would have gotten a raise.”  You don’t need that aggravation.  Better to say: “From time to time, the Company will evaluate your performance to give you feedback on how you’re doing” and “From time to time, the Company will adjust an employee’s compensation based on the employee’s performance, attendance, attitude, and the needs of the Company.”

Perhaps the best benefit of creating an Employee Handbook is its service as insurance policy of sorts.  A comprehensive Employee Handbook will include a section on the Company’s policy of no toleration on sexual harassment.  That section will explain what an employee needs to do if she feels she may be the victim of sexual harassment.  You tell the employee to whom a report may be made, without fear of retaliation, and with the assurance that the Company will conduct a thorough investigation and take appropriate action.  If a sexual harassment situation later becomes a full-blown lawsuit, merely having this section in your Employee Handbook will help the company establish an affirmative defense to liability.  Given that many actual insurance policies exclude coverage for sexual harassment claims, this may be the best protection available.  And the best part: you don’t have to pay any premiums. 

So if you have an Employee Handbook, dust it off and make sure it says all the things you want it to say, the way you want them said.  If you don’t have one, start typing!

If you would like more information about these issues, please contact Scott Thomas.   Scott has helped firm clients create and revise Employee Handbooks tailored to their needs.  He welcomes the opportunity to work with you on your Handbook.  His direct line is 859.578.3862.  You can email him at sthomas@HemmerLaw.com.  If there is a particular topic you would like to see addressed in a blog, please send Scott an email with your ideas.

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