March 09, 2020 Practice Points

Does My Firm Really Need an Employee Handbook?

Some benefits a handbook can provide your firm and guidelines to keep in mind when implementing or updating it.

By Kelsey Heino

While employee handbooks are about as ubiquitous in the workforce as hand sanitizer is on a New York subway right about now, employers often wonder if the juice is worth the squeeze when it comes to annual updates and indoctrinating new hires. So, what benefits can a well-written employee handbook provide your firm?

  • Set the tone. The introduction section sets the standard for the employment relationship in general and provides a guidepost for the remaining policies communicated in the handbook. You just hired this employee—give them some reassurance that your company understands the importance of certain workplace laws and is dedicated to providing a safe and welcoming environment.
  • Communicate expectations. Having your company’s policies laid out from the beginning minimizes confusion as to how leave is requested, what attire is appropriate, etc. Rather than having to run every question up the flagpole, employees and supervisors can turn to the handbook for guidance on the basics.
  • Cover your assets. A handbook is a one-stop-shop for communicating all required federal and state notices and emphasizing that employment is at will (unless a contract or state law requires otherwise).
  • Brag about your benefits. Employees may often forget about lesser-used benefits like a mental health hotline or bereavement leave. Having all the benefit information and processes for how to use them in one place makes it easy for an employee to remember why they wanted to work for your company in the first place.
  • Establish Exhibit A. If an employee is fired for violation of company policy and tries to say he never knew about it, it is handy to be able to display his handbook acknowledgment page and the verbatim policy language right next to the witness stand at trial. Having a written handbook is far more effective at defeating feigned innocence than a he-said-she-said battle.
  • Keep it in the company. Ultimately, you want employees to feel comfortable turning to a trusted member of management for help when they want to report workplace violations, obtain workplace-related assistance, and get answers to any other questions they may have. The alternative is for them to turn to an outside third party, like the EEOC or DOL, which could trigger a costly and time-consuming investigation. When a handbook not only outlines one or two management individuals for an employee to turn to in these situations, but also designates another individual to turn to in the event the employee disagrees with the first decision, they are more likely to keep their complaints in-house, and this is a good thing for employers.

With all that being said, there are important guidelines to keep in mind when implementing or updating a handbook.

  1. Personalize the handbook to your industry and company. It’s important that the policies regarding PTO, recognized holidays, grievance procedures, etc., accurately depict what actually happens at your company. Using form language without ensuring it reflects the reality of your employees can do more harm than good. For example, if the handbook outlines a progressive discipline policy but a supervisor goes straight to an unpaid suspension without adequate basis, the employee may have grounds to complain.
  2. Update and inform regularly. It’s a good idea to review your handbook on at least an annual basis. I’d suggest having it looked over by your attorney, as they will be able to determine if any changes are needed to provisions relating to state or federal law. Keep in mind, you don’t have to wait until January 1 to do an update; if a situation arises that would benefit from handbook guidance, get it drafted and send out the revised copy with a notice to all employees. Consider having an acknowledgment form signed by all employees if a significant change is made to important policies like attendance, PTO, or discipline.
  3. Make it accessible. Consider providing an electronic copy to each employee, either through an email attachment or through the employee web portal, if you have one. Your HR office will want to keep a backlog of all amended versions so that the company can easily look back at what policy language was in place at the time of an incident.

Having an employee handbook in place won’t guarantee that your firm will have a trouble-free existence, but it is a good place to start to ensure all employees are on the same page (literally!) from day one.

Kelsey Heino is an employment litigation attorney at Woods Aitken, LLP, in their Omaha, Nebraska, office. 


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