The Importance of Having an Employee Handbook

employee handbook

The employee handbook, that much-maligned staple of corporate life, loved by office fussbudgets everywhere and often ignored by everyone else, is making a comeback.  Savvy managers have rediscovered the value of having a place where their organizations’ standards for work, discipline, discrimination, privacy and performance can be clearly articulated along with specific policies on dress, attendance, benefits, leave, proprietary information, smoking and drug use.  Likewise, sharp employees appreciate having these things spelled out so that they, and everyone they work with, know what’s expected of them, what their organization’s standards of professionalism are, and where the boundaries of appropriate behavior lie.

In an age of ever-changing social attitudes, quickly evolving government regulations, and an increasingly litigious culture, it’s more important than ever that each business maintain a comprehensive and up-to-date employee handbook that covers the full range of employee-to-employer and employee-to-employee interactions.  To keep up with this fast-changing environment, it should be reviewed and rewritten frequently, at least once a year and always with the guidance of a legal counsel who is well-versed in the arcane backwaters of human relations law and its application to the jurisdiction within which that business operates.

The Society for Human Resource Management suggest that a good employee handbook be designed to serve a purpose beyond simply preventing employee discord and/or law suits.  It is a good place, for example, to establish a vision of what your organization represents both for your employees and for the people they interact with and as a vehicle for clarifying your brand’s identity and its place in the world.  The SHRM also advises that although the handbook needs to be thorough, it should not to be too detailed, lest it become excessively long and rigid.  On the other hand, it should not be written too broadly, especially in areas like employee speech and the use of social media, or it may be seen to impinge on individual rights and invite controversy there.  It is also important that every employee handbook include a disclaimer that it is not a contract of employment.  Again a legal adviser will help you find the right balance.

The underlying problem of getting one’s employees to actually read their handbook remains, however, some experts suggest having all employees sign a statement that they have received and read a copy of the handbook.  But to really succeed in getting the non-fussbudget rank-and-file to not ignore the employee handbook may require a bit more creativity.  The goal ultimately should be to have them want to read it.  The NASDAQ last year published an extremely useful article on how six different corporations handled the issue of the employee handbook in refreshingly innovative ways, with links to each handbook.  It is not surprising that many of these six entities are consistently ranked among the best places to work each year: the game publisher Valve; Nordstrom’s department store; The Motley Fool web site; the online retailer, Zappos; the media company, Netflix; and the online blog comment hosting service, Disqus.  Nor is it surprising that most of these organizations also got where they are by pursuing the “disruptive” business practices of the new economy.  If ever there was an area of economic endeavor begging for disruption, it is the employee handbook.  So before you sit down with your lawyers to work up the next revision of yours, check these six examples out for some ideas.  Your employees will thank you.

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About the author

Shannon Husdspeth, SPHR is the Director of Human Resources for Sinclair Risk & Financial Management and consults with The WorkPlace Solution.

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