“How Often Do I Need to Update My Policies?”—and 3 More Questions to Answer Before Drafting Your Employee Handbook
So, you’re finally ready to turn your organization into a bona fide company. No, I’m not talking about hiring your first employee, but creating your first employee handbook.
What key terms should you include?
Kara suggests focusing on a few key policy language elements:
“We want our policies to be applied based on circumstances and severity. And we want the policies to say that ‘this could result in discipline up to and including termination.’
To be clear, I don’t like it when every policy says that. I think this should be included probably somewhere near the beginning of your handbook: an acknowledgment saying that violation of any policy could result in this discipline up to and including termination.”
She added that terms like “generally,” “from time to time,” and “as needed” help employers communicate the discretionary nature of disciplinary actions and thereby steer clear of legally binding language. Remember: a handbook is not a contract.
What key terms should you avoid?
As for terms to avoid:
- Kara cautioned against using the words “probation” and “probationary,” not only because they sound “punitive and unfriendly,” but because at least one court has ruled that the words comprise the at-will relationship between employer and employee. Instead, she told us, it’s a better idea to use the words “introductory period.”
- In a similar vein, employers should keep non-disclosure and noncompete agreements out of their handbooks.
- Despite popular belief, it’s illegal (and has been for a long time) to prohibit employees from talking about their wages.
- Kara told us that in order to comply with the National Labor Relations Board, it’s important that employers do not define confidential information too broadly:
“We don’t want to say any conversation that happens at work is confidential. That’s just not going to fly. We can say that conversations about particular clients are confidential. Conversations that are about company finances, or anything about the books—we can say that’s confidential. But we can’t say anything happening at work is confidential.”
- Finally, don’t include anything in your handbook that you do not intend to enforce. “Having a policy in our handbook that we don’t enforce can be just as much of a problem as having no handbook at all,” said Kara.
How often should you review or update your handbook?
Kara suggests that employers review their handbooks on a yearly basis—if not more frequently—and make changes when necessary. Policies may need to be updated following changes in corporate structure or to reflect alterations to benefits such as paid time off.
Do you need a different employee handbook for each state in which you operate?
Kara told us that while this question is something of a matter of “personal preference,” it’s good practice to consolidate handbooks if at all possible:
“Whenever possible, we will combine policy. So if there are slightly different voting leave policies, let’s say along the West Coast—maybe you’re in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California—we’ll look at all four of those voting leave policies and we’ll come up with one that is compliant in all four states. If we see that a policy is dramatically different or more generous in one state than the other, we may put two policies within that handbook. So, there might be one for most employees, and then one for California employees—if, for instance, California employees just get some benefit that’s above and beyond that no one else gets. We definitely do some combining, but as a general rule, we think one handbook for all employees is the way to go.”
And there you have it. Thus ends our three-part series on employee handbooks. Once again, we would like to thank Kara for sharing her perspectives and expertise with us.
Looking for more information about HR and workforce compliance? Need a professional to help you draft or review your employee handbook? Check out the HR Support Center.