February 17, 2015 – Colleen Niese - Insights

Is Your Company’s Employee Handbook Too Much or Not Enough?


Employee Handbooks can be viewed a lot like an insurance policy: they can be a bit on the invisible side day to day but be put under a very bright light when they are needed in certain situations. If you’ve spoken to any handbook expert he/she will tell you why it’s crucial to have one and in the same breath warn you that a poorly constructed handbook can actually cause more exposure than not having one at all in that it can be viewed as a contract and with certain employment issues, could potentially lead to breach of contract and other claims.

Did your head explode yet? At the end of the day, you just want the assurance that the Employee Handbook you give your employees satisfies litigious and compliance concerns without being so onerous that the employee needs a special session with HR to review the “really” important policies. If you’re curious to know how close you are to this delicate balance, evaluate your current handbook against these three key aspects:

If it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen. Specific to employee handbooks, it isn’t uncommon for us to hear from the C-Level, “we don’t need that section, it’s common sense.” Ahem. Assuming that your 100, 200, 1000 employees think exactly the way you do is a slippery slope; consider the diversity of workforce and try not to assume everyone “just gets it”. This is one of the aspects that really shows its painful side when an issue arises that the organization can’t defend itself against because the supporting documentation is non existent.

Words matter. We had a client once who wanted to remove all references to the word “should” as he felt that particular word flew in the face of his company’s culture of fun and entrepreneurship. Thankfully his outside counsel went to bat on this concern and explained the broader the language, the broader the interpretation and the more literal the content reads, the less chance of debate when a policy is comprised. While it’s completely understandable to want to have company culture flavored into the content of the handbook, be mindful that the actual merits of the policies and procedures aren’t put into question as a result.

Your handbook should be on the same maintenance schedule as your car. Given how quick legislation at the federal, state and city levels changes, combined with certain subject matters constantly on the move (can you say social media?) the recommendation to have your legal counsel review your handbook to ensure it’s keeping in pace with external compliance is once every quarter. That may sound administratively burdensome but the reality is the review is very much like a tune-up: quarter over quarter reviews take a couple of hours and produce incremental changes where updating the handbook every few years, ironically, can actually be quite a drag on internal resources.

This quarter’s HR Parking Exchange discusses essential components of effective onboarding programs including Employee Handbooks. If you have a role with developing and/or delivering your company’s Employee Handbook, join the conversation with your industry colleagues by registering here for the Marlyn Group’s Quarterly HR Exchange Forum that will occur on February 25th at 2pm EST/11am PST.