Your Employee Handbook–Suggestions and Links for Creating and Updating It

Introduction: Should You Have an Employee Handbook?

An employee handbook that’s prepared and reviewed thoroughly and properly customized is great. But as with a written employee evaluation–which can either help or hurt your legal position, depending on whether it was prepared well–a handbook that was created poorly, by rote, and without proper attention to detail can be worse than none at all, and can actually increase your risk of legal problems.

Like a poorly prepared employee evaluation, poorly chosen words in an employee manual can become an opposing attorney’s “Exhibit A” in an employment lawsuit.

The same is true of an employee handbook that sounds great but is not consistently applied.

On the other hand, if applied consistently, a good employee handbook can be useful in defending against employee legal claims by providing justification for your conduct as an employer. It can also help employees understand rules, policies, and expectations, while helping your managers treat employees consistently and fairly.

So by all means have an employee manual. But make sure it’s a good one and follow it. Otherwise, you’re better off just skipping it.

How Can You Make Employee Handbook Preparation and Revision More Efficient and Cost-Effective?

Having worked on many employee handbooks, I’ve frequently contemplated this question. Candidly, in many situations hiring an attorney or HR consultant by the hour to do the whole job from scratch is probably not the best answer.

On the other hand, I advise against skimping entirely on legal assistance or seeking it only at the tail end of the process. The potential legal ramifications of your handbook’s content are simply too great. Instead, I suggest making legal counsel an integral member of the employee handbook project team.

Many cookie cutter, template-style do-it-yourself options are commercially available. Many actual handbooks, typically those of public employers, are freely available on the Internet. Some examples are linked below.

Most of the commercial templates say they were prepared by legal and HR experts. To the extent this is true, such standardized handbooks are unlikely to cause major legal problems.

But to be truly useful and effective, as opposed to simply legally benign, a good handbook needs to reflect the existing practices, preferences, and needs of the particular workplace.

What Are Some Basic Tips For Creating an Employee Handbook?

An employee handbook should not involve revolutionary changes in existing policies. If it does, it probably won’t be followed. Simply adopting an existing template that wasn’t created for your workplace may create this problem of too much change.

Your employee handbook should communicate more than just the nuts and bolts of policies, rules, and wages and benefits. A good handbook serves as an introduction to the company’s unique history, culture, goals, values, and organizational structure. This is another reason preparing a good employee handbook requires considerable customization.

The employee handbook also must take into account state and local laws that may vary from federal law. These may not be adequately reflected in templates or do-it-yourself materials, requiring further customization based upon qualified legal advice.

If starting from scratch and wishing to use some kind of model or template (as opposed to revising an existing handbook), I suggest using a variety of them for inspiration and building blocks, rather than treating a particular one as a complete, off-the-shelf solution. Each topic covered by sample or template employee handbooks should be grounds for discussion as to:

  • What is the company’s current policy?
  • What should the policy be?
  • How can the preferred policy be expressed most clearly in plain English?

After drafting an employee handbook in-house in this manner, I would then send it to in-house or outside employment counsel for legal review. This is a task that outside counsel may be willing to undertake for a flat fee. I am.

Alternatively, attorney involvement at an earlier stage may actually be more efficient. As part of a project team, an experienced employment lawyer can provide much more input than just advice on the lawfulness of specific handbook provisions and the appropriate “cya” language. That we’ve seen so many workplace problems and issues allows us to anticipate potential misunderstandings and conflicts and and prevent them through clear and precise writing.

If you’re updating an existing employee handbook, the best process will depend on how well the handbook was prepared — and how long ago. Normally, this has been the context of my involvement, and at times I have struggled with the efficiency question, feeling I was making so many changes that it would have been easier to scrap the sorry old thing and start fresh. In fact, I did this at least once, with very nice results.

What Are Some Crucial Elements to Include in an Employee Handbook?

It may seem there is no need to reiterate your legal obligations when preparing an employee handbook. But there are very good reasons to do so, particularly concerning laws governing equal employment opportunity, family and medical leave, and overtime. Spelling out your compliance policies will both help ensure compliance and provide documentation that can be useful in defending against legal claims.

It is also important to make sure you’ve protected employment at will as well as possible. In some states, and under some circumstances, employee handbook provisions have been used to chip away at employers’ right to terminate employees at will (that is, the right to terminate without having to prove a good reason).

You should also reserve the right to change all policies.

What About the Details of Publishing and Distributing an Employee Handbook?

The devil can be in the details. Here are some details to watch out for:

  • Don’t forget to ensure that existing employees, as well as new ones, receive copies of the new employee handbook and have the opportunity to ask questions.
  • Written proof of each employee’s receipt of the employee handbook is essential and should be part of their personnel file.
  • If you print too many copies of a complete handbook, you’ll get stuck with a bunch of obsolete handbooks when you need to make a change. I suggest instead issuing the manual in three-ring binders, with each policy or section on a fresh page, so new pages can be swapped in easily (just be sure to get fresh employee acknowledgments). If you use this method:
    • Use a footer on each page with the effective date of the policy.
    • Use your word processor’s automatic table of contents and index features, and automatically number policies in an outline format that allows appropriate insertion of new policies in their logical place.
    • As you change the handbook, keep a meticulous archive so that you can easily prove what version of a changed policy was in effect on a particular date, if required in defense of a lawsuit.

Handpicked Resources on Employee Handbooks


Whew! There you have it. No more excuses. Whip up that handbook. . . But remember: be careful and be sure to do lots of adaptation and consulting rather than adopting any of the above models right out of the box.

1 Comment

  1. Kelley

    You discussed a lot of very important concepts in this post, but the one detail that stands out to me in particular is “…follow it– otherwise skip it”. Personally, I believe that no matter what the rule/guideline/policy is, it is most important that an organization consistently follow it. If the rule/guideline/policy is not consistently followed, employees will become increasingly lacks with the issue. In my experiences, I have found that more often than not, there will also come a point where the organization will decide to start reprimanding for going against the rule/guideline/policy and by then, the organization culture has become so accustomed to a certain behavior that it will be very difficult to change without causing much dismay.

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