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Establishing What the Handbook Should Accomplish

In the grand scheme, an employer’s goal in issuing an employee handbook is to obtain all of the above-mentioned advantages that a handbook offers, while minimizing the recognized risks associated with handbooks. In more practical terms, the core objective of any handbook is to inform the workforce of the employer’s policies and procedures of general application. The most rudimentary handbook should spell out the basic terms and conditions of the employment relationship in clear, easily understood language; that is, it should set forth what the employer expects of its workforce and what employees can expect from their employer.

    However, a handbook is not generally designed to (nor should it) memorialize every aspect of the employer-employee relationship. Circumstances vary too greatly for a handbook to detail the individual relationship an employer has with each and every employee. Moreover, to the extent a manual or handbook specifically identifies agreements that are reached between an employer and an individual employee, it begins to appear (and may be considered) more like a contract and less like a handbook.

    Accordingly, a basic handbook should focus on the employer’s main policies which have wide application. For example, nearly all manuals contain provisions on sick leave and vacation time. These kinds of policies rarely vary from employee to employee and are applicable to large classes or groups of employees. Conversely, handbooks rarely contain individual pay rates, because they vary greatly, are generally considered confidential, and may create wage payment and collection liability.

    No employee manual is complete without a policy on equal employment opportunity, anti-harassment (particularly sexual harassment), Family and Medical Leave Act (when applicable), and employment at-will status (i.e., all employment is at-will and the manual is not intended to create a contract). These policies should be prominently featured in the manual, particularly the employment-at will statement. In some manuals, the employment at-will statement appears on the footer of every page! This, perhaps, is overkill, but the at-will message must be clearly and prominently stated in the manual.

    Other policies that a basic employee handbook generally contains are: employee categories; employment verification; probationary periods; medical examinations; promotions; job postings; hours; overtime; payroll period and payday; paychecks; performance evaluations; discipline procedures; meals; contents and examination of personnel files; updating personnel information; grievance procedures; counseling and warning notices; layoff; drug testing; resignation and termination; insurance/medical benefits; vacations; holidays; sick and personal days; leaves of absences; jury duty; bereavement leave; appearence/dress code; calling in/absenteeism & punctuality; employee conduct; accidents; solicitation and/or distribution of written materials; hazard communication programs; employee suggestions; transportation and reimbursement; personal articles; mail and packages; telephone use; non-business or social visits; confidential and privileged information; conflict of interest; employee assistance; tuition assistance; pension plan; worker’s compensation; electronic communications (e.g., e-mail); and smoking.

    This list is not exhaustive. Nor should all employers have policies on each of these topics. Each employer must decide for itself the scope of its employee manual. Similarly, the specific content of any of these policies is within the employer’s discretion (the particulars are rarely mandated by law). In general, employers must use common sense to determine the tone of the manual and business sense to determine the content of the specific policies; however, more care must be given to policies such as equal employment opportunity, anti-harassment and family and medical leave. Likewise, they must meet certain standards to be of use to an employer. Employers should therefore seek advice of qualified counsel to ensure that these policies are properly drafted.

    In addition, the manual should contain a provision that the employer maintains the right to revise any and all policies. The manual should also contain a page, which is signed by the employee, stating that the employee has received, read and understands the manual. This same page should also contain language that all employment is at-will and that the employer retains the right, in its sole discretion, to modify, alter or amend the handbook at any time. This “verification” page should also state that no manager or supervisor (except perhaps the highest ranking officer) has the authority to enter into an any contract of employment, written or oral, with any employee.

    A less common, but equally important goal that an employee handbook can accomplish is to further the employer’s corporate culture. Many employers preface their employee handbooks with discussions, some rather lengthy, regarding the employer’s history or business philosophy. Other employers preface their handbooks with letters from the company’s highest ranking officer. Often, these letters include a discussion of the corporate mission statement. In addition to these prefaces, employers will include specific policies regarding corporate culture and employee fair treatment. Regardless of approach, the purpose of these prefaces and policies is to introduce the employer’s business philosophy to its employees, create a positive image for the employer, and maintain good employee morale.

    In sum, the near universal goal that employers seek to accomplish with employee manuals is the communication of established policies and procedures that management adheres to in a uniform, non-biased manner. To achieve this goal, employers that do not currently have an employee handbook should consider adopting a trim, concise handbook that sets forth its most central employment policies. Over time, the handbook can be revised to include other policies and achieve broader goals, such as fostering a particular corporate culture.