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Top tips for effective employment handbooks


Although most employers at least have an employment handbook, few companies treat it as a priority item. That’s a shame, because a handbook presents a wonderful opportunity to communicate with your workforce about your organization’s philosophy, mission, and culture.

Companies like Netflix and Nordstrom have demonstrated that handbooks can be effective without being dry and tedious legal documents. But make no mistake, your handbook does have legal ramifications.

A good handbook informs your employees about workplace rules and policies and sets expectations for performance and conduct, which prevents misunderstandings that may lead to disputes. Thoughtful and properly worded policies also may help you with your legal defense if a dispute does arise. On the other hand, a problematic or deficient handbook can hurt your cause more than it helps you.

Here are some of the biggest problems employment attorneys typically see with employment handbooks.

Outdated policies

I recently reviewed a handbook that contained a policy requiring smokeless ashtrays for employees who want to smoke in the office. I’m not sure in which decade somebody last reviewed the handbook, but I’m guessing hairstyles were a lot bigger then. Laws change. Policies and practices change. The very nature of your workforce and mission may change. Your handbook should reflect your current policies and be compliant with current law. It is a good idea to review your handbook every couple of years if you possibly can.

One size does not fit all

I’ve seen a lot of handbooks that look like they’re basically a form downloaded from the internet or borrowed from another source, such as someone’s former employer. I’m not necessarily knocking forms. You have to start somewhere, and handbooks do have a lot of common elements, so you don’t need to create each one as a unique work of art. But a handbook form that you borrow from somewhere else is almost never going to be exactly right for your organization.