Some Thoughts on Employee Handbooks for Small Employers (Part II)

By:  Jonathan Driggs, Attorney at Law
Last month I discussed when and why a small employer would want to create an employee handbook.  Let’s now take a look at how to get started creating a handbook and some important tips employers should follow when creating them.

First of all, where does an employer get the material or template to use for their handbook?  I’ve seen many different approaches, each with their own pros and cons.  They include: writing it yourself from scratch, modifying a pre-existing handbook created by another employer, using a commercial employee handbook software program, and having an attorney draft a handbook (or any combination of the above).  There is no perfect solution, but keep the following in mind:

  • For a handbook to be of any real value, it needs to accurately represent the culture of the specific employer and the needs of the specific work environment.  There is no “one-size-fits-all” handbook template out there that can be used without a fair amount of editing.
  • Commercial software programs can provide good templates, but they often use a “shotgun approach” resulting in more detail than may actually be needed or desired (especially for a smaller employer).  Again, some editing will be required.

Whatever approach you use, keep the following guidelines in mind when creating employee handbooks:

  • Don’t make contractual promises:  Avoid making promises that could create breach of contract claims.
  • Always preserve employer flexibility and discretion:  One of the ways to avoid making contractual promises is to avoid using “absolute-sounding” words like “will”, “shall”, “always”, etc., especially when describing an employer’s obligations.  Words like “may” and “generally” are often good substitutes to use in order to preserve flexibility.
  • No deadwood policies: if a policy does not accurately describe your current practice, either your policy or your practice needs to change.  Someone with a great deal of “day-to-day” knowledge of your company’s actual practices should be involved in the drafting and review process.
  • Keep it short: be realistic about how much employees will read.  Employee manuals do not have to address every contingency (though they should typically address the most common issues, problems and questions that come up).
  • Company culture: The manual should attempt to reflect the company’s culture, style and philosophy.  Use it to promote the value of employment with the company in the eyes of employees.
  • Use a user-friendly format and style:  Avoid making the handbook look like a government regulations manual (boring!)  Use fonts, styles, pictures, etc., that will spruce it up while still maintaining a professional look.
  • Multi-state issues:  Where are your employees located?  All in one state or scattered across the country?  Employment laws can vary from state to state—the handbook should be written to either incorporate or allow for the differences in applicable state laws.
  • Avoid having to update your handbook too frequently: Policies that are subject to frequent change should be maintained outside of the manual (with references made thereto within the manual) to avoid making your manual need updating every time your policy changes.  For example, information about health insurance benefits that could change from year to year should generally not be kept in the handbook.

Finally, at the risk of sounding self-serving, I strongly recommend that you have a qualified employment law attorney review your handbook before issuing it to employees. There are many competent employment law attorneys along the Wasatch Front to choose from, but whomever you choose should be experienced in employment law (not just a general practitioner) in order to provide a worthwhile review.  Employee handbooks create many legal ramifications which may not be evident to the untrained eye.  If litigation were to occur, the contents of your handbook may become a focal point.  A handbook that has not been reviewed by competent legal counsel is an unfinished handbook—one that may ultimately create more risk than benefit for the employer.

This article should not be construed as legal advice.  Copyright ©2012 by Jonathan K. Driggs, Attorney at Law, P.C.  All rights reserved.

Jonathan K. Driggs is an employment law attorney with over 18 years of experience, including 3 years with the Utah Labor Commission.

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