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Your Employee Handbook: What and What Not to Include

Employee handbook being reviewed by managers

Employee handbooks that are carefully written, detailed, and up-to-date are a company’s first line of defense against litigation and liability.

In a court of law, your employee handbook can and will be used against you.

“A lot of employers recognize that handbooks are important,” says HR Specialist, Dianne Boasso. “Unfortunately, they don’t treat it as a priority or take it seriously until they’re facing an audit from the Department of Labor or employment claim from a worker —and by then it’s too late.”

Employment lawyers agree.

“A well-written handbook is vital to a company’s risk mitigation strategy,” says employment attorney Andrew Pepper of Jackson Lewis. “Skimping on a handbook is a really bad idea that inevitably will come back to haunt a corner-cutting employer.”

Handbooks that are carefully drafted, detailed, up-to-date, and tailored to internal policies are a company’s first line of defense against litigation and liability.

Sherrie Course, simplicityHR Handbook Specialist, with over 20 years of HR, benefits, and payroll experience, advises businesses to be cautious about what is and is not included in their employee handbook.

What to include in your employee handbook

  1. The essentials. Your employee handbook should document company policies that guide employees on questions they may have about their employment. Among the top policies that should be documented include:
    • Rules of conduct
    • At-will disclaimer
    • Zero-tolerance policies such as anti-discrimination and anti-harassment
    • Leave policies
    • State and Federal regulations
  2. Common sense policies. Even workplace rules that seem like common sense need to be documented. For example, if an employee is fired for sleeping on the job and files a claim for unemployment insurance benefits, the ruling could go in favor of the employee if your company doesn’t have a written policy against it.
  3. State and local employment laws. In addition to federal employment laws, your employee handbook should document local and state specific laws. In many cases, Hawaii laws are stricter and more stringent than federal law.

What NOT to include in your employee handbook

  1. Words that can be construed as a promise. Words that can be construed as a promise should only be used where that’s the intention (e.g., violation of a zero-tolerance policy will be cause for disciplinary action). On the other hand, a company should not “promise” things like progressive discipline, annual performance reviews, or increases if that’s not the actual practice.
  2. Contractual documents. This includes arbitration and non-compete agreements which should be separate forms requiring their own acknowledgment signatures. Policies such as substance abuse and confidentiality are acceptable for inclusion.
  3. Standard Operating Procedures (SOP). If an employee is being fired for their poor attendance but their handbook states that their manager would take steps X, Y, and Z, before declaring an unexcused absence, then that could be used against your company in a court hearing.

Finally, make sure you get the handbook acknowledgment signed by every new employee. This is a vital component of every employers’ risk control strategy.

“Some employers spend the money on having a good handbook drafted and then do not pay attention to the need to prove that their employees have seen and acknowledged it,” says Pepper. “In such cases, you have a beautiful and elegant handbook that is the legal equivalent of one hand clapping.”

Drafting and updating an employee handbook can be confusing and stressful. When you work with simplicityHR, you’ll have access to our experienced and knowledgeable HR and Handbook Specialists who can ensure your company is covered. Contact one of our experts today.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Readers should first consult their attorney, accountant or adviser before acting upon any information in this article.
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