Best practices for employee handbooks

June 10, 2013

While employee handbooks serve a very important role, keep them simple and to-the-point, and outline the practice’s most salient expectations and legal obligations when creating them.

While employee handbooks serve a very important role, keep them simple and to-the-point, and outline the practice’s most salient expectations and legal obligations when creating them, experts say.

“Some people treat a handbook like The Grapes of Wrath. It shouldn’t be a novel,” says labor relations attorney Kristin Erenburg, JD, of Walter Haverfield in Cleveland, Ohio. “A handbook should state the policies that apply to the employees, and that’s it. It’s surprising how few things are actually required.”

A handbook should offer an overview of an employer’s expectations and legal obligations, an employees’ rights, and it also should describe what an employee can expect from his or her employment with the company. The more detail included, she says, the more changes and addendums will be required as benefits change. And if an employer does not make those updates, Erenburg says, the practice leadership can get into trouble by not following the practice’s own policies.

She also recommends keeping “legalese” out of a handbook.

What to include

So what should an employee handbook contain? Lori Christenson, PHR, human resources coordinator for Clayton L. Scroggins Associates, a management consulting agency for doctors, says she generally suggests including:

  • a general disclaimer;

  • a statement of the business’ goals and missions;

  • appropriate employee definitions;

  • a description of the company work week;

  • sexual harassment, disability, and medical leave policies;

  • a statement of employee benefits; and

  • an outline of the company’s discipline policies.

Erenburg’s recommended handbook checklist includes:

  • an at-will statement explaining the nature of the employment relationship and how it could be changed,

  • a statement that the handbook is general guidance and that it can be changed at the discretion of the employer and without prior written notice, and

  • statements about equal employment and non-discrimination policies.

Erenburg adds that employers also should include information about:

  •             family medical, jury duty, and military leave; and

  •             vacation, holiday, bereavement, sick leave, or other paid time-off policies.

 

Other crucial inclusions for a handbook, she says:

  •             workplace conduct standards, including policies on workplace violence,  anti-harassment, and dress codes;

  •             employment classifications;

  •             employee benefits;

  •             payment schedules and information on timesheets or timekeeping requirements;

  •             work hours;

  •             attendance;

  •             absences,

  •             reporting late or leaving early;

  •             policies on information security and personal safety;

  •             guidelines on the appropriate use  of technology; and

  •             standards for employee breaks.

 

What to exclude

Omit verbiage related to salaries or payment rates, because this kind of information could be misconstrued as a contract and could cancel out any at-will disclaimers, Erenburg says.

Employers should remember that in litigation, any statements made in a handbook-even ones made with the best intentions-could come back to haunt them, Erenburg says.

“You really want to keep things short and sweet in a handbook,” she says.

Putting it together

Although guidelines are helpful, Erenburg advises that employers consult an attorney who specializes in staying up-to-date on labor laws before drafting a handbook. Admitting that this advice sounds self-serving, she says that this step is critical because handbooks are not a “one-size-fits-all” product.

Local governments and states also may have laws that apply to handbooks, so check with them as well before starting the process, she adds.

Once it is created, a handbook should be distributed to employees at the time of hire, Erenburg says, and the employer should have each employee sign a paper document acknowledging receipt. That goes for updates, too. All but three states have laws on the books that permit electronic signatures on documents, but Erenburg says that a hard-copy document is still the best bet.

“Some courts really scrutinize whether these people really opened that email,” she cautions.

 

Match policies, actions

In addition to the dos and don’ts of handbook-writing, Mark D. Scroggins, MSBA, CPA, CHBC, a management consultant with Clayton L. Scroggins Associates, says that physician practices need to remember that although an accurate handbook helps, what happens in a practice is what really matters.

Scroggins, a Medical Economics editorial consultant, says he has witnessed doctors passing out a handbook that says one thing, then adopting a completely different way of handling various benefits.

“What’s frustrating for the employees is, they have a 6-year-old signed handbook, but the doctor changed procedures since then,” he says. Often, the employees will ask which practice they are supposed to follow.

The handbook is not a legal document, Scroggins adds. Sometimes a doctor’s actions may not match the handbook, but the practice’s leaders must be consistent for all employees, regardless of what the handbook states. For example, if one nurse receives a particular benefit-even if it is not specified in the handbook-then all the nurses should receive the same benefit.

“Try to keep the handbook as general as possible and as flexible in the language as possible,” he adds. “That way, the doctor can operate in a greater realm.” 

The employee perspective

If you are a newly hired employee, you can do little if you see something in a handbook that you simply do not like, according to labor relations attorney Kristin Erenburg, JD, of Walter Haverfield in Cleveland, Ohio.

“Employers can put whatever they want in these handbooks, and if you don it like it, you don’t have to work there,” she adds. “Right now, nine times out of 10, someone is so grateful to have landed a job, even if there’s something they don’t like, they hope the company doesn’t really mean it or enforce it.”

It is another matter when an employee sees something in a handbook that violates his or her rights, however. In that case, Erenburg says, it is up to the individual to decide whether he or she wants to work at the company. The applicant or employee then can report the violation to the National Labor Relations Board or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agencies that would investigate the matter.

Both agencies are very active right now, making it even more important that employers stay up-to-date on policies and requirements, Erenburg says.