Employee Handbooks: 7 Tips to Getting Yours Done

“Every employee receives the same information about the rules of the workplace; employees know what is expected from them and what they can expect from the business. Having an employee handbook also may get offer legal protection if an employee later files an employment claim against the business…”

Culled from lawyers and law firms writing on JD Supra, here’s a list of seven essential elements of any employee handbook – a great place to start as you get yours underway: 

1. In Some Instances, Paint with a Broad Brush:

“A common mistake in drafting employee handbooks is being too specific. Instead of trying to include detailed policies to cover every common occurrence, use the handbook to discuss your business philosophy and the general expectations you have for your employees. Don’t create specific expectations in the minds of employees by making promises you may not be able to keep. For example, instead of stating, “compensation will be increased annually based on performance,” simply state, “generally, performance is reviewed annually.” This will not create an expectation in the mind of your employees and will allow you the flexibility to review performance and increase or decrease compensation at any time…”

[From: 3 Tips for an Effective Employee Handbook, by Russell Nevers. On this point, also see KC Biz Journal Employee Handbook Interview with Denise Drake.]

2. Include Equal Employment Opportunity & Anti-Harassment Policies

“Perhaps the most essential component of an employee handbook is the equal employment opportunity policies:

Non-Discrimination Policy: Specify that the company will not discriminate on any basis protected by state or federal law. Make sure that the policy applies to all employees (including supervisors and upper management), and that it is clearly communicated that each employee has a responsibility for assuring that the policy is followed.

Anti-Harassment Policy: Expressly prohibit harassment or discrimination of any kind. Include a brief definition of harassment, and explain that it may take the form of threats, unwelcome advances, verbal abuse, physical abuse or the display of sexually suggestive objects. Require immediate reporting of harassment to management or human resources. State that employees will not be retaliated against for reporting harassment, and that complaints will be investigated as promptly, thoroughly, and confidentially as reasonably possible. Finally, make it clear that a violation of this policy may result in corrective action up to and including termination of employment…”

[From: Essential Elements of an Employee Handbook, by Andrew M. Schpak]

“In harassment lawsuits, fact finders routinely consider: whether the employer adopted and implemented a specific policy prohibiting workplace harassment; whether the employer disseminated the policy to employees; whether and when the employer learned of the alleged harassment; and, if the employer had knowledge, whether the employer responded in a reasonable manner. If an employee later files a harassment lawsuit without first utilizing the employer’s complaint procedure, the employee’s failure to complain may form the basis of the employer’s defense. There is limited, but growing, authority, that even if an employee promptly utilizes an employer’s complaint procedure, an employer still may escape liability.

An employer’s anti-harassment policy should provide employees with more than one reporting option because employees are unlikely to report harassment if the person designated as the company’s harassment officer is the alleged perpetrator…”

[From: Top 10 Employment Handbook Mistakes, by Barry Hersh]

3. Include Family and Medical Leave Act Information:

“General FMLA notice must be provided to new employees in an employee handbook or similar written materials that describe benefits. If the employer does not maintain a handbook or other similar materials, the employer must provide the general FMLA notice to each new employee at the time of hire. These requirements may be satisfied by an electronic-only posting, provided employees and applicants have access to electronic information…”

[From: Employers Must Act Promptly to Comply with the Revised Family and Medical Leave Act Regulations, by Duane Morris LLP]

4. Include a Social Media Policy:

“When taken as a whole, the universe of Social Media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace, and similar web 2.0 applications) is expanding at breakneck speed. For businesses, this means there’s no longer a question of whether to use Social Media. It’s a question of how they use it. Social Media gives us an opportunity to be part of a community where we can actively engage in dialogue and promote a brand. The downside is that we can also lose control over our message. In addition, Social Media is a fertile source of discovery in employment, commercial, and other types of litigation. Social Media policies should be an important part of your employee handbook. These policies should be specifically tailored to your business and written by professionals…”

[From: Tips for Businesses Exploring the Social Media Universe, by Armstrong Teasdale LLP]

5. Require Receipt and Acknowledgement:

“One of the most vital components of the employee handbook process is that of employee acknowledgment and verification. The acknowledgment is important in order to ensure that all employees have read, understand, and are prepared to comply with company policies…”

[From: Top 10 Employment Law Mistakes Made By Businesses, by Frank Cardenas]

6. Review Your Employee Handbook Annually

“This is a good item to have on your to-do list every year, given how often the landscape changes with new laws, regulations and court interpretations. Particular attention should be paid to your Equal Employment Opportunity and workplace harassment policies (see discussion below). You should also address confidential information and how employees are expected to handle it. Fringe benefits is another area to give some thought to. In Michigan, for example, it is permissible to require employees to forfeit unused vacation upon termination or to limit vacation payout to those who voluntarily terminate with appropriate notice…”

[From: HR Resolutions for 2011, by Warner Norcross & Judd]

7. Last But Not Least: Just Do It – Here’s Why:

“As small businesses grow, it becomes increasingly important to have a structured set of rules and guidelines to address everyday issues that the employees are aware of. Comprehensive employee handbooks clearly explain employment policies as well as the consequences for violating these policies. Every employee receives the same information about the rules of the workplace; employees know what is expected from them and what they can expect from the business. Having an employee handbook also may get offer legal protection if an employee later files an employment claim against the business…


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