By Jamie Moore Marcario
Your company started small: just you, a computer, and your supplies in your garage apartment. And then almost overnight, you moved to an office downtown and added your first, second . . . maybe even your fifteenth employee. Or maybe you’re about to hire your first team member. Congrats on your growth! You’re clearly doing a lot of things right!
But if your company is in a growth spurt, chances are you struggle with enforcing company “rules”: rules that you have discussed with your team, but never committed to writing. Or maybe you deem these “rules” to be intuitive with no need for discussion or explanation. Like showing up on time. Or dressing professionally. Or giving advance notice if you need a half day off to get that root canal taken care of. If this describes you, read on!
If your company’s rules of the road aren’t written down, reviewed with your employees, and made available to them as a resource, you’re not only missing out on clear communication with your team, you’re also putting yourself at risk of liability when that rogue employee acts in violation of your unwritten rules and causes harm to himself, another employee, or even a client in the process.
Enter stage right: A Well-Drafted Employee Handbook
(Cheers from Your Employees, Clients, and Family Erupt)
A thorough and well-written employee handbook acts as reinforcement of your incredible company culture. It clearly communicates your mission, values, and goals so that your team can connect to the larger vision while they’re engaged in the day-to-day activities that will make that dream a reality. And don’t underestimate this. Just like you, your employees want to know that they are part of something bigger than themselves. Your handbook can reinforce that when they come to work for you, indeed, they are contributing to a worthwhile cause, so their role has purpose.
Additionally, your team must know what you expect of them in terms of time value, work quality, and legal and ethical boundaries. While you may think these things are intuitive, usually, they are not. So communicating value and criteria, as well as boundaries to your team in a written format, such as a handbook, is essential to ensuring that you have leverage to reward those team members who are excelling and to discipline or keep in check those who are underperforming or taking advantage of your good graces by exceeding the boundaries you’ve created.
Company Vision Statement
The first item in your employee handbook MUST be your vision statement: a short summary of your company’s mission, goals and values designed to capture the essence of your long-game while engendering inspired action now. In sharing your vision with your whole team, you infuse it into the culture and give your employees a common sense of purpose. When existing employee know and buy into your clear company vision, they will naturally encourage new employees to do they same. With just a few simple sentences, you can chart the course for your employees’ success as well as that of your company.
Purpose of Company Policy Handbook
In addition to your vision statement, your handbook must clearly state its purpose upfront. I know. I know. This seems like another given that could easily remain unstated. Think again! If you want your team to be on the same sheet of music as you, you need to give it to them straight. Your handbook purpose should simply and concisely state the reason for its existence. By including a statement of purpose, you put your employees on notice that it is a living document, subject to change and revision from time to time as the company evolves and grow. In other words, in explaining that the handbook exists “to ensure consistency, fairness, and a wildly wonderful client experience,” you can also “reserve the right” to revise the policies in the handbook, in your sole discretion, as your vision for the company, its employees, and its clients grows and changes.
At-Will Employment Disclaimer
Although an employee handbook can feel like a contract, and indeed, sometimes courts will treat it as one, your handbook should make clear that it is not a contract of employment and should not be construed as such. Rather, your handbook should clearly state that each employee is an employee “at-will,” meaning either you or she can choose to terminate the employment relationship at any time and for any reason, without the need to establish “cause” for the termination and without warning. Be aware that if you have contractual employees whose contracts contain different provisions than this, your contract with the employee likely governs.
Employment Policies & Procedures
If you don’t have a policy or procedure that outlines your expectations for employee conduct, don’t expect your employees to read your mind. If you’ve answered the same question more than twice, it’s time to create a policy or procedure and add it to your handbook. When you do, be sure the policy is clear with respect to what circumstances trigger the policy and what behaviors are expected from your team.
Because employers are often sued by employees over failure to comply with the express federal, state and local laws and regulations that govern your business, there are certain MUST HAVE policies you need to ensure compliance These include policies on Equal Opportunity Employment, Non-Harassment, Non-Discrimination, Employee Eligibility, and Employee Classification. If you don’t have these policies in place now, THIS is your new starting point.
General Policies, Procedures and Information
This is the heart of your handbook. The policies, procedures and systems you set out in this section set the tone for your company’s culture. They create the company vibe, and the right vibe attracts the right tribe! Not sure what to include here? Think about things like working hours and scheduling, performance and conduct standards, communication and conflict resolution, payroll schedule, requests for time off, requests for overtime, criteria for promotions, dress code, device policies, social media policies, and any and all other items that you believe to be essential to the way your business uniquely operates.
Regardless of how dedicated your employees are, there will be times they need to take time off from work. To avoid being taken advantage of, as well as the appearance of favoritism among your team, it is critical that you clearly communicate your time-off policy to the whole team. Additionally, before you roll out your leave policy, be sure it complies with federal and state laws. Leave policies encompass many different situations, including sickness, vacation, military, bereavement, caregiving, jury duty, and maternity or paternity. These policies must also expressly state which employee classes are eligible, how much time off is acceptable, whether leave is paid or unpaid, and whether advance approval is necessary. If advance approval is required, be sure your policy sets out clearly what the procedure is for requesting and obtaining approval. Finally, your leave policies should put your employees on notice that if abuse of the policies will not be tolerated and may be grounds for termination.
Health and Safety
This seems like a no brainer, right? Surely workplace safety is not something you need to cover for your desk-bound employees. Think again! Because you may be on the hook for accidents and safety incidents in the workplace, it’s crucial that your handbook outlines some safety and security basics. And while you’re at it, check whether OSHA regulations apply in your business, and set our specific guidelines for how your employees are to handle accidents, injuries, and other safety issues that arise at work, whether they involve employees, clients, or other visitors to your workplace.
Whether or not your company offers benefits to some or all of its employees, your handbook must explain the benefits available, which employees are eligible to receive them, and what the employer’s contribution is, if any. Be especially clear when describing eligibility for healthcare benefits and be sure to apply the criteria consistently as to every one of your employees. To do otherwise may open you up to liability you don’t need.
Discipline and Termination Policies
No one likes to talk about disciplining or firing employees, but your handbook MUST address these topics. Your employees have a right to know what to expect if and when a disciplinary measure is required. They need to know what to expect from you, how the issue will be documented, and what the repercussions of an official disciplinary action are at your company. Your policy should also address the process the company will follow when an employee elects to leave of her own volition, as well as the process for involuntary termination. Before you put all this in writing, be sure you can live with and abide by your discipline and termination policies, because once there out there, you have to!
Once you create and distribute your employee handbook, be sure that it contains an acknowledgment page that each employee is required to sign. Why? An acknowledgment shows that each employee received, read, understands, and agrees to comply with the policies set out in the company handbook. Make sure you keep a copy of each employee’s signed acknowledgement in his or her personnel file. Even if the employee goes to another company or is fired, the best practice is to keep the acknowledgement for at least 5 years, along with the then-current version of the handbook.
While this list of policies to include in your employee handbook is by no means exhaustive, it should give you an idea about where to begin when crafting one for your business. If you find yourself uncertain about what to include or not include, don’t hesitate to seek the advice of the experienced legal team at Thrive LawTM. We’re happy to help you draft a handbook that creates an incredibly positive business culture while covering all the bases you need for compliance purposes at the same time.
At Thrive LawTM, we’re your trusted advisor when it comes to employment law and employee handbooks. If you’re trying to decide what to include in your handbook but find yourself stymied by the sheer volumes of information available on the subject, don’t hesitate to contact our experienced team for guidance and drafting that will afford you and your company the best protection from employment claim liability.
This article is an educational service of Thrive LawTM, a business law boutique. It does not constitute legal or tax advice or imply an attorney-client or accountant-client relationship. At Thrive Law, we offer a full spectrum of legal services for businesses and are equipped to help you make the wisest choices about your business dealings while you’re alive and well or in the event of your incapacity or death. We also offer a Healthy Business & Creative Checkup for ongoing ventures, as well as outsourced company counsel plans for businesses who need a legal team on speed dial. Contact us today to schedule: 727.300.1990 or firstname.lastname@example.org. We cannot wait to meet you!