Does your handbook read like the fine print in your cell phone contract and put your employees to sleep?  Or, is it clear and easy to understand?

Here’s an example I came across recently that got me thinking:

“An employee who earns sick days must use those days him or herself and may not transfer said days for use by another employee.”

Would you ever actually say this to your employees?  Unless your organization is based in merry old England, I’m betting that your communications are a bit less formal and a whole lot clearer.  Your handbook needs to reflect that.

We’re currently working on handbooks for three organizations and the differences between them are amazing.  As well as keeping you out of legal trouble, handbooks can be a great resource for employees and should be something they can go to when they have a question or problem.   Here are some things to do, or not do, that can help make certain that your employees actually use your handbook as a resource:

  • Use normal language: Yes, you probably can write like an attorney, but unless your goal is to provide a sleep aid to your employees, I would highly recommend avoiding it.  Common terms are every bit as legally binding, but they actually get read.
  • Don’t fire your employees repeatedly:  Employees know you can fire them; you don’t have to repeat it.  One handbook that we reviewed (and rewrote) included a statement at the end of every one of the 38 sections that employees could be fired without cause.  We got the point after the first three sections and so would a judge.
  • Be brief: You’ll never cover every possible contingency, so don’t try.  There was a fun story last year about UBS, a Swiss bank with a 43 page dress code policy.  At that length, it’s useless because no one will ever read, remember, or apply the whole thing.
  • Know your location: I recently read one handbook, produced by a national firm, that wasn’t in compliance with our local statutes.  Don’t assume yours is compliant just because it was written by a big firm.
  • Make certain that it matches your culture: A handbook written for a manufacturing firm is going to be different than one written for bank.  Know your audience and tailor your message accordingly.
  • Make certain that you would be comfortable applying the policies that are included: One handbook didn’t provide bereavement time off until after the probationary period.  Think about that one…Would you fire your new employee for missing work if his parent passed away just because he hadn’t completed his probationary period?
  • Listen to your employees: The most effective handbooks I’ve seen are the ones that utilize employee feedback at some point in the process.  After all, they are the ones who need to live with it…

If your handbook is something that you never open, then rethink its purpose.  A handbook should be written to provide information to your employees first, and then it should cover your legal bases.  If you write it directly for a judge, you just excluded your most important audience.  And likely gave me some fun quotations to use in my next blog.

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