Employee Handbooks: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Part 2 – The Bad
Most companies have an employee handbook. Unfortunately, many of those employee handbooks lack professional quality, legal defensibility, and organizational value. Sadly, many companies view an employee handbook merely as a necessary administrative task, and in like manner, fail to devote proportional investment into it in order to maximize its true worth. With that prevailing perspective in place, this second act of the employee handbook trilogy addresses those common, albeit easily rectified, problems that insidiously detract from an optimal document that should convey meaningful information, procedural detail, and organizational pride to all recipients.
1. Avoid “You”
Employee handbooks are formal documents. Yet in many cases, employee handbooks adopt a casual vernacular that may confuse the reader. This is most frequently seen through the use of the pronoun “you.” That pronoun mistakenly personalizes content not intended for all employees. For example, “you” should never be used in the Benefits section or Performance Management section of an employee handbook, since some content is not applicable to all employees. In specific, instead of using “you,” rely on the term “eligible employees” to distinguish the point that only a subset of employees (i.e., those meeting eligibility standards) can receive vacation benefits after 60 days of employment, while “you” do not.
With the changing American workforce on display each day, it is important for companies to accommodate their communication needs, especially when it comes to an employee handbook. The standing “rule of thumb” is that if 10% of the company workforce has a primary language other than English, the employee handbook should be translated into that language. To strengthen legal defensibility due to potential translation errors, the following disclaimer should be presented: “If any real or perceived inconsistency or imprecise language is found in the employee handbook, the English version of the employee handbook will be viewed as the primary source and dictate content intent and interpretation.”
3. Legal Terminology
All employee handbooks should be viewed with an eye toward practical meaning while avoiding legal connotations. It is quite common for employee handbooks to use certain words with a colloquial intention when in fact they possess specific legal meaning. To illustrate this point, many employee handbooks state that “theft” can lead to performance management up to and including possible termination. However, “theft” is defined differently by each state jurisdiction carrying a high legal threshold (i.e., “intent” to permanently deprive the owner of possessions). Determining “intent” as a precondition of “theft” is legally problematic. Instead, use an expression like “unauthorized removal or possession of materials.” Do yourself a favor: Avoid the legalese throughout the employee handbook.
4. Federal and State Laws
Cheap organizations frequently rely on “vanilla” (i.e., off-the-shelf) employee handbook templates that are quick to publish and easy to distribute. Lamentably, these versions rarely take into consideration the proper representation of federal, state, and local laws that may impact a company’s policies. For example, differences between state and federal regarding leaves of absence and/or marijuana usage, as well as state and local paid sick leave laws, should be appropriately tailored for each company locale to maximize legal compliance, administrative interpretation, and communication relevance.
5. Right to Privacy
In large measure, private sector companies have the right to monitor email, computer, and phone use by their employees. From that premise, it is strongly recommended that all policies regarding monitoring in an employee handbook be documented, well-defined, and require written acknowledgment by employees. Whether it be social media, information technology, or GPS surveillance, the employee handbook should clearly stipulate that employees should not expect privacy when they use their employer’s resources or are on their employer’s property.
A casual glance through many employee handbooks can quickly reveal myriad examples of poor editing practices including: irregular formatting (e.g., different fonts, line spacing, margins), spelling errors, and inaccurate word use (e.g., they’re, their, there), as well as ambiguous written communication that detract from a quality document. Similarly, many employee handbooks frequently contain legal inaccuracies (e.g., exempt employee pay deductions, overtime pay for holidays, wrong at-will statement) that can create an immense legal risk to the company.
7. Interim Changes
Within today’s litigious society, employment laws, guidelines, and standards change at a rapid pace. Passive organizations typically adopt a dilatory approach to incorporating those revisions into their employee handbook. While not advocating wholesale changes to the employee handbook throughout the calendar, it is strongly recommended that all major policy, benefits, or procedural changes to the employee handbook be conveyed to all employees in the form of a timely and formal memorandum pinpointing the actual content change, identifying placement within the existing employee handbook, and specifying that all employee questions on that issue be directed to an appropriate source (e.g., Office Manager, direct supervisor, Human Resources).
8. Omitting Key Policies
Despite the increasing length of employee handbooks, key policies and elucidating statements are still routinely omitted, inevitably leading to administrative confusion, organizational embarrassment, and financial cost. Frequent policy omissions include: failing to state if unused vacation/PTO benefits will be paid at the time of employee termination, Bring Your Own Device, workplace harassment complaint procedure, conflicts of interest, anti-retaliation, workplace violence, “bullying,” and code of safe practices. Keep in mind, it is quite difficult for a company to hold an employee accountable for a performance standard if there is no written policy to define that standard.
9. Extraneous Information
Employee handbooks should only contain practical information relevant to the company and its business operation. While it is certainly at the company’s discretion to include content it feels is important, long-winded paragraphs explaining the company’s leadership model, textbook principles behind performance management, multiple pages describing every aspect of drug testing, extensive explanations of the company’s organizational chart, and/or protracted physiological precision of blood-borne pathogen training is probably best left outside of the employee handbook. It’s already too long; don’t add to it unnecessarily.
10. Inconsistent Application
A quick way to make a good employee handbook, become a bad employee handbook is to apply policies inconsistently. This problem is typically seen when certain employees are not held accountable to the policies within the employee handbook as other employees because of special circumstances (e.g., tenure, familiarity, protected class status, fear of reprisal) or when a manager makes a decision without first referencing the employee handbook to validate alignment with company protocol. In either case, employees can rapidly lose trust in the stated value of the employee handbook if it is applied hypocritically or indiscriminately by the company.
Make no mistake about it: There are a lot of bad employee handbooks out there. However, most bad employee handbooks can be improved significantly, simply by applying greater attention detail, pride, and research. The itemized points shown above illustrate common problems that can easily be remedied. In objective terms, the extra time and effort devoted to improving an employee handbook is inconsequential compared to the enhanced professional quality, overall impact, and legal defensibility of the refined finished product.
If you have any questions or comments about this topic or anything else related to human resources, simply call me at (760) 685-3800.
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