How to Write an Employee Handbook – It’s More Than Rules

Employee handbooks have changed dramatically over the years, evolving from coma-inducing wheezes about pencil disbursement policies and parking spaces, to no-nonsense edicts on 21st century issues like blogging, Internet use statutes and sexual harassment.

Handbooks now serve as body armor against freewheeling lawsuits, discrimination cases and job actions against companies.

“It’s as much a legal document now as it was a recruitment tool,” says Rae Pearson, owner of an Indianapolis-based human resources and staffing company. “Smart companies are revising their employee handbooks accordingly.”

Tech Adds a New Layer of Cautions

Technology – especially the Internet – is also triggering a marked change in employee handbooks, providing a new set of rules for tech- and information-savvy workers.

“We’ve found that many companies fail to regularly update their handbooks to be current with workforce expectations or legal requirements,” says Phil Gabel, president and CEO of Thompson Publishing Group. “For example, new technologies like YouTube and blogging can create real headaches for companies if they aren't addressed directly and upfront.

“Employees, particularly those who have grown up with the Internet, make a lot of assumptions about how much access and freedom they have in regard to electronic media.”

Thompson has made the task at hand easier, for a price, by offering an online Employee Handbook Builder. For $390, a tutorial walks you through the process step by step.

Tips for Writing Your Company’s Employee Handbook

Some things to think about as you prepare your manual. You should:

  • Write crystal-clear policy descriptions in one voice. Often, companies make the mistake of having several department contribute to handbook drafts. The inconsistency can confuse your audience.
  • Try to anticipate what your employees want to know. Take time to interview staff, perhaps in a focus group. Then use their questions – and your answers – to frame your handbook.
  • Always begin with a brief mission statement – what StartupNation calls your “elevator speech.” How would you concisely summarize your company’s reason-for-being during a 2-minute elevator ride? A good opener relaxes the reader and lets him or her know what’s ahead.
  • Lay out in plain language exactly how you expect employees to behave – a Code of Conduct. Define your policies on sensitive issues like sexual harassment, discrimination, intellectual property theft, office decorum and workplace attire.
  • Brief employees on compensation, taxes, Social Security obligations and criteria for pay raises and bonuses.
  • Tell employees what to do and where to go in an emergency.
  • List and describe employee benefits. Clearly explain eligibility, health and dental plans, your 401(k), stock options, retirement plans, workers compensation, vacation and holiday schedules, and COBRA’s extended health coverage after leaving your company.
  • Establish policies on maternity/family leave, bereavement, sick days and leave. The feds have strict rules on issues like jury and military duty. Be certain employees know that you comply.
  • Employee communications policies have taken on new importance with evolving cell phone and Internet technologies. To keep a lid on abuses, include how, why, when and with whom employees may interact on company phones, the Web and in e-mail.
  • Include language on using office equipment and supplies. Be sure your rules apply to all employees – and are enforced that way.
  • Include your termination/discipline policy, with step-procedures you’ll follow in either instance for violation of company rules. And explain at-will employment and grounds for firing.

Whether you do it yourself or hire out the task, design and produce both online and hard-copy versions – enough for every employee. But first, have a lawyer review the final draft.

Finally: “Update them every two years, at least,” Pearson says. “As your business grows, your employees will have a lot more questions on what needs to be done, how to do those things, and how their tasks are in line with your company’s goals.

“In that regard, an employee handbook isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.”

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