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Making Your Employee Handbook an Effective HR Tool

hr best practices hr essentials hr for small business Oct 31, 2022

In a recent group I was facilitating, I asked the group about the length of their employee handbooks. The answers ranged from 10 to 70 pages. Why the difference? Because some companies like to stick to the basics, giving them the flexibility to make decisions as situations arise. The companies with longer handbooks want to have every possible situation tied down and leave nothing to chance.

So which is best?

The right answer lies somewhere in between. Let’s take a look at some strategies you can use to turn your employee handbook into an effective HR tool.

Employee handbooks should exist to spell out procedures of the employment relationship and benefits so that employees know what to expect. You can’t have one manager giving five days for bereavement and another only allowing two. At the same time, the policies should be general enough to account for situations that arise outside the norm.

In my book, HR You Can Use, I discuss another situation regarding bereavement leave. Most of us have policies that state days off are for immediate family only, but what happens when someone has been raised by an aunt who passes away? Don’t you want your leadership team to have the flexibility to allow bereavement days in this situation as well?

An employee handbook does not have to cover every situation imaginable. If a law exists to address something, you wouldn’t rely on the handbook. You simply have to comply with that law. For instance, there is no need to have a policy in the employee handbook about completing an I-9 form in the first 3 days of work. Not only is the completion of this document required by law, but the onus is also on HR to see that it gets done. It’s not the employee’s responsibility.

The employee handbook serves as a way to let employees know generally what is expected of them and what they can expect from you. If it’s written such that employees can get the information they need, it can be very effective.

Think about the policies that employees may want to look up when a manager isn’t available. These tend to be questions around time off, performance feedback, new opportunities, and the like. This is what they want to know when they look at a handbook. Addressing the topics that are of greatest concern to your employees means the handbook will be utilized by them.

While employee handbooks will differ from company to company, there are some essential policies that should always be included. These include

  • At-will employment
  • Anti-harassment and discrimination
  • Computer systems, social media and email use
  • Pay practices
  • Confidentiality of company property, medical information and employee data

For the organization, the handbook should be a compliance tool. Unfortunately, we live in a litigious society and your handbook needs to set forth the ways the leadership team will handle situations.

By documenting the rights and responsibilities for everyone in the organization, the handbook can help prevent claims of discrimination or other crimes. Should allegations arise, your handbook will be the first place you turn. If questioned by the unemployment department, EEOC, and the Department of Labor, you can use the employee handbook as a guide.

Some of My Favourite Employee Handbook Tips

Adjust Your Terminology

To be effective for the organization, employees, and outside agencies, the language of the employee handbook should be inclusive and comprehensive, but still general. Use terms such as might, often, generally, and anticipate rather than will, must and expect. Give employees an idea of how the organization intends to be run, but also give your managers and leadership team the leeway to run the business.

Keep Your Employee Handbook Online

The days of fully printed handbooks are gone in most organizations. Have a digital handbook on your Intranet or payroll system where employees can click on the table of contents and go to the policy they need. It also makes it much easier to update policies as you make changes.

Remember Your Culture

Think of the employee handbook as a reflection of your culture. If you have a fun and outgoing workforce, pick a font and page borders that reflect that. I have even seen handbooks that have cartoons at the start of each section that suit the organization’s style. A handbook doesn’t necessarily need to be stuffy. The key is to have a document that fully explains the policies to your employees in a way that supports the business needs of the organization.

Download our checklist for Employee Handbook


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