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Employee handbooks: Best practices

How in-house counsel can create and maintain consistent, coherent policies in a master document

Creating an employee handbook may seem like a daunting task for an employer. Some employers have few written policies in place when they begin the process. Others may have adopted individual written policies in the past with little consideration given to how the policies should fit together in a handbook.

This article highlights the key considerations for private employers seeking to create, distribute, and maintain their employee handbooks, including:

  • Providing guidance on creating a handbook
  • Examining the primary reasons for creating a handbook
  • Highlighting best practices for distributing and maintaining a handbook

Key reasons to create a handbook

Although providing handbooks to their employees is typically not required by law, there are numerous reasons for employers to do so. For example, a handbook provides an opportunity to welcome new employees, introduce the organization, and explain expectations. It also makes it easier for an employer to ensure that each employee receives copies of all relevant policies. Handbooks act as a centralized place for employees to look for answers to common questions and can also assist in an employer’s legal defense.

Creating a handbook

Most employers begin creating a handbook by deciding which policies to include. Some policies, such as an anti-harassment policy, are required or recommended for all employers. The inclusion of other policies, such as a telecommuting policy, depends on the employer’s policies and procedure.

Employers should only include policies they intend to follow because failure to follow written policies can cause confusion, damage morale, and create legal liability. Accordingly, employers seeking to create a handbook for the first time should evaluate which policies they have and should develop. For a comprehensive set of policies that an employer may wish to include in an employee handbook, please consult the Practical Law resources Employee Handbook Toolkit and State Employee Handbook Toolkit, two of more than 70,000 resources available through Practical Law and Practical Law Connect.

Drafting guidelines

Employers should consider the following when creating policies for a handbook:

•       Use a positive and professional tone that matches the organization’s culture

•       Eliminate unnecessary complex or legal terms and use plain language to explain the employer’s policies and procedures

•       Avoid rigid disciplinary rules and other languages that could be interpreted as creating a contractual obligation requiring just cause for termination. The employer should maintain discretion to discipline and terminate employees

•       Include enough information so that policies can be understood but avoid overwhelming employees with details, for example, by including all office procedures. Employers often have a separate manual covering workplace procedures

•       Provide the handbook in alternate languages, especially if employees speak languages other than English

•       Use situations that are familiar to employees when providing examples

•       Include contact information for an employer representative that can answer employee questions about policies

Creating a handbook from existing policies

If an employer is creating a handbook from existing policies, the employer should conduct an audit to confirm all existing policies are up to date. Because policies may be created by different departments, it is also important to ensure consistency among policies before employees read policies as a single collection in a handbook.

Before finalizing its handbook, an employer should be certain all policies comply with and demonstrate an employer’s commitment to adhering to current law. Policies must be current with respect to the employer’s business practices. They should also be consistent internally and not contradict each other.

For example, the complaint procedures in an equal employment opportunity policy, anti-harassment policy, and anti-retaliation policy should be consistent with one another to:

•       Increase the likelihood that employees will use the proper and desired procedure

•       Decrease the risk of confusing employees

•       Increase the likelihood that the employer will respond properly and in a timely fashion

Be sure to use one voice so all policies make sense when read together. Although many people may be involved in creating the handbook, at least one person should review the handbook in its entirety before distributing it to employees.

Tips for organizing a handbook

Handbooks can become unwieldy if not properly organized. Some best practices are to:

•       Create a table of contents

•       Organize policies by subject matter

•       Use section headings to break up the policies

•       Use individual pages for each policy instead of including multiple, shorter policies on the same page

•       Organize pages in a loose-leaf binder so that individual pages can be easily replaced when a policy is updated

•       Include the date on the first page of the handbook or, if using a loose-leaf binder, on each page

•       For online handbooks, consider online acknowledgment of receipt and review

Distributing or posting a handbook

Employers should make handbooks available to employees either electronically or by providing hard copies when the handbook is first created. Employers making handbooks available to employees for the first time should consider holding a meeting to introduce the handbook to all employees. Best practice is to designate someone to distribute or coordinate access to them. This individual is typically someone from Human Resources who can answer any questions about the employer’s policies.

Upon hiring, all new employees should receive a copy during orientation. After an employer makes the handbook available, it must continue to ensure that all new employees receive electronic access or hard copies. Each time the handbook is updated, employees should be notified.

If an individual policy within the handbook is revised, an employer may choose to distribute or electronically circulate only the updated policy to employees if employees have already received copies of the handbook and the remainder of the handbook has not been revised.

Employers should make sure to collect signed acknowledgments of receipt, review, and understanding of the handbook. This reduces the risk of an employee claiming ignorance of a policy as an excuse for non-compliance.

Maintaining a handbook

Employers must periodically review handbooks to ensure that all policies are current and lawful. Some employers choose to review their handbook annually; others designate a person to monitor changes in the law or in the employer’s procedure on an ongoing basis.

At a minimum, a handbook must be reviewed — and revised if necessary — when there is a change in the law or to the employer’s policies or procedures. Another reason for revision would be if the employer expands into new states.

A revised handbook should indicate that it supersedes prior handbooks so employees understand which policies are current. Employers should distribute or post revised handbooks and collect signed acknowledgments from all employees. When an employer distributes an updated handbook, it should keep copies of any older versions for the longest statute of limitations period applicable under federal or state law. If the employer is ever involved in litigation, it should be able to point to the written policies in effect at the time of the challenged employment action.

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