Employee Handbooks: Every Word Counts

Originally printed in Fox Cities Chamber Business Magazine, July/August 2010

Employee Handbooks are essential for employers in today’s litigious environment. They are one of the most important tools that an employer can have to protect itself from future liability. However, there are common mistakes that employers can make that wreak havoc for employers. When it comes to employee handbooks, every word counts. What you say can get you in trouble; what you don’t say can get you in trouble. Don’t take handbooks for granted. The legal importance and ramifications of employee handbooks has grown immensely in this litigious society.

If you do not have a handbook or haven’t reviewed it recently, it is probably time for you to do so. Over the years, I have seen and developed many company handbooks and in doing so, I have a few recommendations:

1. Say what you do ... and do what you say. Sometimes companies have an employee handbook but they don’t know the policies that are in it. When asked about a particular topic, the answer I often hear is “it’s in the handbook”. Then they reach for their handbook and are surprised at what it says. Always remember: if it’s in the handbook, it must be followed. Do not put anything in the handbook that you are not going to follow. Know what your handbook says ... your employees do!

2. Leave a little legal wiggle room. Avoid using absolute words and incorporate permissive language. For example, instead of saying “We will conduct annual performance reviews” say “We may conduct annual performance reviews” or “We intend to conduct annual performance reviews.” Instead of saying “We provide a safe working environment” say “We strive to provide a safe working environment.” Permissive language like “may” instead of “will” or “must” in a handbook allows the employer to maintain flexibility to run their business.

3. Beware not to lock yourself in. Including a detailed disciplinary policy in the handbook can box the employer into a corner when faced with an unusual situation that warrants termination prior to completion of the disciplinary process. If an employer includes a progressive discipline policy in the handbook, they should also include language that allows them the discretion to terminate prior to all steps being completed.

4. Use appropriate disclaimers. Make sure to include appropriate disclaimers such as the employer has the right to change the rules without notice, the fact that employment is at-will, and the handbook does not create a contract. Also include that the handbook is not all inclusive and that no supervisor has the authority to change anything in the handbook.

5. Get signed acknowledgements. Sometimes, handbooks are casually distributed to employees during orientation, leaving no record as to the employee receiving the handbook. Don’t make this mistake. To ensure employees do not later claim that they were not aware of a policy, have them sign an acknowledgement stating that they have received the handbook and understand they must abide by its policies. Keep that receipt in the employee personnel file, in the event you ever need it.

These are just a few of common pitfalls of employee handbooks. Take time to review your handbook and see if it needs to be updated so you can protect yourself from future liability. Avoid these common mistakes and when it comes to employee handbooks, remember that every word counts.

HR Business Partners is a consulting firm that offers more than 20 years of HR experience and expertise. Mary Felton, founder and president, brings real world experience and an innovative view which enables her to effectively handle all of your human resource needs. Previously, Mary worked in HR positions at various Fortune 500 companies including: Illinois Tool Works-Miller Electric Mfg. Co., James River Corp., Banta, and TIDI Products, where she was the vice president of HR. She also served as president of the Fox Valley — Society of Human Resource Management.

For more information, see www.hrbusinesspartnersllc.com. or email mfelton@hrbusinesspartnersllc.com or call (920) 419-2014.