Style Tips for Employee Handbooks

By Jonathan K. Driggs, Attorney at Law

 

I know that discussing the topic of updating employee handbooks can immediately illicit sighs and groans from the unlucky souls assigned to the task.  But despite the risk of causing some readers to reach for their ulcer medicine, allow me to share a few thoughts and observations about employee handbooks.

 

Please note the following is not intended to be a comprehensive coverage of the topic.  Rather, in this article, I am not focusing on legal concerns (like avoiding contractual language, etc.), but more on the general style and feel of the handbook (yes, attorney’s have a softer side, and despite risking my professional reputation, I’m about to show you mine… cue the Barry Manilow music).

 

  • Is this really you?   Employee handbooks are often borrowed from other employers, so it is not unusual to find policies that don’t seem to really fit or apply to the employer in question.  That’s not a good thing.  Employee handbooks also often originate from one-size-fits-all commercial templates.  While such templates can be useful, they often take a broad (not to mention lengthy) shotgun approach that make them sound like they were written for some ginormous faceless factory in the Midwest… and not at all like they are coming from your particular company.

 

  • No deadwood policies: if a policy does not accurately describe your current practice, either your policy or practice needs to change.  This review must be done by someone with a great deal of “day-to-day” knowledge of the company (while I believe you should have an attorney review your handbook, a third party cannot effectively do this part of the review for you).  A healthy dose of skepticism and practicality should be applied when reviewing manuals for deadwood policies.  Some questions to ask are: Is this policy important enough to be in the manual? What purposes does it serve? Do I (and company leadership) understand what this policy means and why it is in the handbook? (There is an interesting “the blind following the blind” phenomena that sometimes develops because a certain policy happens to be in the source document, therefore it is assumed that it must be included, yet no one really knows what it means or why it is there.)  Of course, such a review should be done in consultation with qualified legal counsel for obvious reasons.

 

  • Keep it short: be realistic about how much employees will read.  Employee manuals do not have to address every contingency (though obviously there are important issues that must be addressed).  On a personal note, clients pay me by the hour to read through their handbooks and I have often thought to myself, “boy, this is really tough to get through… and I’m getting paid to read it!”

 

  • Show a little tenderness (or at least a little personality).  Use a user-friendly format and style.  Avoid making the handbook look like it was cut and pasted from a government regulations manual (zzzzzzzzzz) that is a tenth generation photocopy of the original.  Just say no to fonts like times new roman and courier (I charge double to review handbooks using either font—ha, ha).  Use fonts, styles, pictures, etc., that will liven things up while still maintaining a professional look.  It is worth taking the time to “spruce it up” a little bit to make it more inviting.  The manual should attempt to reflect the company’s culture, style and philosophy.

 

  • Show off a little: Use the handbook to promote the value of employment with the company in the eyes of employees (yes, the handbook is a marketing tool for employers to use with their employees).  Without compromising the material (or creating legal complexities), show why working for your company totally rocks.

 

Finally, I confess that I wrote this article for entirely selfish purposes.  It’s still my hope that one day I will be asked to review an employee handbook that will cause me to exclaim, “four stars… what a page turner!”

 

This article should not be construed as legal advice.  Copyright ©2014 by Jonathan K. Driggs, Attorney at Law, P.C.  All rights reserved.  Jonathan K. Driggs is an employment law attorney with over 20 years of experience, including 3 years with the Utah Labor Commission.  www.jkdlawpc.com

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