There’s no two ways around it: if you have employees, you should have an employee handbook.
But what policies need to be included in your employee handbook? We recently tackled the question during a webinar hosted by Kara Govro, Laws Manager for Compli’s HR Support Center, and Kynzie Sims, Compli’s Content Product Manager. If you missed the webinar, or if you’d like a recap, here’s what Kara and Kynzie told us:
General Considerations for Drafting an Employee Handbook
When creating an employee handbook, Kara told us, the first thing an employer should think about is the intended audience. It may sound basic, but the handbook is only for employees—not everyone with whom you do business.
“You do not want to be giving your employee handbook to independent contractors,” she said. “It’s only for employees. We see this accident or mistake happen fairly often because there are a lot of things in an employee handbook that you might want an independent contractor to know about you. But the essence of an independent contractor is that you’re not controlling how, what, when, where they do the work. You have limited control over them.”
In the same vein, an employers should be careful to specify whether the policies in a handbook apply to everyone or only certain employees. Take a look at your workforce, and determine whether you need to spell out policies based on working hours or overtime exemptions.
More generally, Kara said, thinking about one’s audience means “we don’t want to speak over their heads”:
Depending on your organization, it might make sense to have this written at a 11th-grade level. But for the most part, we don’t want it to be because the general population in America reads at something like a 5th or 6th-grade level, so we don’t want to be using unnecessarily long words. We don’t want to be using legal jargon that people don’t understand at all.
Which Policies to Include in an Employee Handbook
Welcome Message: Vision, Mission, Values
First, consider your welcome message: How do you communicate your values and mission to employees? This kind of message, according to Kara, can enliven a handbook, “because, honestly, most of your handbook is going to be pretty boring—that’s the bottom line.”
Your at-will relationship clarifies that the handbook is not an employment contract. Says Kara:
The essence of this is that we’re saying that the employment relationship can be terminated by either party at any time for any reason with or without notice, and that’s it. You can end it, the employee can end it—there doesn’t have to be a good reason. The only requirement is that it not be a reason that is illegal—and that would be a form of discrimination, of course.
Equal Employment Opportunity
According to Kara, this is one of the most important sections of any employee handbook.
In accordance with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, make sure your handbook spells out that employees are to be treated equally regardless of …
- national origin
- gender identity
- sexual orientation
Additionally, some states require employers to protect employees on the basis of other classes, including…
- lawful off-duty conduct (e.g. tobacco use)
- political affiliation
- marital status
- familial status
- credit information
- arrest records
- HIV/AIDS status
- domestic violence victim status
General conduct guidelines are a list of discouraged behaviors. These vary between employers, although some items (e.g. sleeping on the job or stealing from the workplace) show up in nearly every handbook.
One universal component is an anti-harassment policy.
“This is the most important policy in your handbook,” said Kara, “I would say if you weren’t going to have a handbook at all, you still need this policy.”
She added: “This should not be a short policy. This should be several paragraphs at the very least. We want to talk about where employees should go with a complaint.”
Another important one: your corrective action policy, which specifies what happens if employees don’t follow the policies in the handbook.
“We want this, actually, to be really nice and vague,” said Kara. “We want this to say that pretty much everything will be at management’s discretion. Maybe it will be a verbal warning, maybe a written warning, maybe it’ll be coaching, maybe it will be immediate termination.” Ambiguity gives an employer room to discipline employees on a case-by-case basis, rather than binding both parties to certain steps—and thereby creating a contractual relationship.
Similar to other sections of the handbook, the compensation section shouldn’t lay out specifics (e.g. how much employees make). Instead, the point of this section is to communicate general rules and expectations in compliance with federal and state wage and hour regulations. Examples of compensation policies include…
- when the workweek begins and ends
- pay periods and paydays
- performance evaluations (only if the company already does them)
Employers pay special attention to state-specific policies, as compensation laws vary significantly by location and company size.
Health and Safety
This is another broad section, and differs from workplace to workplace. Aside from what Occupational Health and Safety laws and other regulations require, employers have room to be as strict as they want to be in terms of smoking, drugs, and alcohol. Kara explained:
You can do pretty much anything you want with a no smoking policy You don’t have to let employees smoke on the premises. You’re not required by law to make a smoking area for them or to allow smoke breaks and anything like that, so feel free to make that no smoking-policy your own. Same with drugs and alcohol. You don’t necessarily have to have a no-tolerance policy. A lot of employers want to offer beer at 4pm on Friday as an impromptu happy hour, and that’s fine, but we want to make sure your policy doesn’t say something like, ‘No alcohol at work, ever, or else termination,’ because that’s a policy we’re not willing to follow.
Next, an employer should outline the office closure policy: What is expected from employees in the event of inclement weather, such as a snowstorm, that makes it impossible to travel to work? Some employers require members of their workforce to use their paid time off if they can’t come into work, or require employees to continue working for home.
This penultimate section, said Kara, is “kind of the catch-all.” It may include a number of miscellaneous policies, such as those related to…
- off-the-clock work
- meal and rest breaks (if specified by state law)
- lactation accommodations
- attendance and tardiness
- personal appearance and hygiene
- electronic asset usage
- social media
The final section in an employee handbook should delineate the boundary between employer and employee. Kara told us tt should cover resignations and terminations, as well as personal property versus company property—in other words: “If you’ve got stuff in the office, take it with you. If you’ve got our stuff, give it back.”
Next: Keeping Your Handbook Updated, Effective, and Compliant
In the third and final blog post from this series, we’ll explore a few additional considerations for drafting an employee handbook and keeping it fresh in light of new laws and policies. Check back here next week!
(PS – If you can’t wait until then, click here to watch What Not to Miss in Your Employee Handbook on demand, for free.)