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The Importance of the Oft-Forgotten Handbook

The employee guidebook must lay the foundation for a person's employment with the company, so be sure to communicate its mission and goals at the beginning, as a company's code of conduct serves as the foundation for all of your policies, procedures and practices.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013
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"One day, Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. 'Which road do I take?' she asked. 'Where do you want to go?' was the cat's response. 'I don't know,' Alice answered. 'Then,' said the cat, 'it doesn't matter.' "

-- Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

This philosophy is also relevant to the workplace. If your employees, including your managers, do not know the direction they are supposed to go, they may wander aimlessly, resulting in increased inefficiencies and reduced productivity. Handbooks are the trail guides for the paths -- whether narrow or wide, steep or flat, treacherous or calm -- to all stages of a person's employment with your company. Handbooks are a primary means of communicating to employees at every level of the company the expectations and ground rules for employment. Not only do they act as the first place employees turn for information about the rules of the game, but they are also where managers turn for navigating through sometimes tricky waters of employee issues. By not neglecting the trails or the trail guidebook, the path for productive employees and managers will remain clear.

The first ground rule for your guidebook: Be sure you are willing to stand by each and every statement in your guide explaining your policies and practices. Although every good handbook includes disclaimers that it "is just a guide" and is "not a contract," a few courts recently found that handbooks, while not "contracts," are "agreements" between the employer and its employees. This means that, now more than ever, employers will be held to the standards they set for themselves.

With that understanding, your employee guidebook must lay the foundation for a person's employment with your company. Be sure to communicate the company's mission and goals at the beginning, as a company's code of conduct serves as the foundation for all of your policies, procedures and practices. All policies that relate to ethics, professionalism, conflicts of interest and employee conduct should be included from the outset. Further, if a policy or practice does not serve or is not in line with your code of conduct, do not adopt it.

Below are my top 10 guidebook-specific reminders for HR leaders at organizations of any size:

1.     Periodically review ALL policy language (even those you think may not need tweaking every year).

Whenever I review and update a company's policy guide, I find several sections the company hasn't reviewed in many years. This leads to inconsistencies between your policies and creates exposure where the laws have changed. For example, solicitation and distribution policies need to be reviewed each year in light of the incredible amount of new NLRB decisions and general counsel "pursuits."  Another example is with personal telephone use policies, which tend to be antiquated. With widespread use of personal smartphones, employee use of company-provided telephones is less of an issue than employees being distracted by the constant flow of texts and calls to their personal devices. Lastly, be sure to review and update "at-will" statements and discrimination, disability, anti-retaliation and harassment policies due to the many changes in the law. Labor and employment laws have been changing at breakneck speed both with federal regulations and state legislature activities.

2.     Wage and Hour Specifics

Guidebooks need to clearly explain your company's work schedules, attendance and punctuality expectations, and pay practices. Explain that employee paychecks will be subject to all legally required and authorized deductions, such as federal and state income taxes, payroll taxes, cost of benefits, etc. Further, be sure to explain your legal obligation to pay overtime to nonexempt employees, and in order to avail your company to the FLSA "safe harbor," be sure to include and follow a wage deduction or underpayment/overpayment policy. Detail your meal and-rest-break policies, including smoking and lactation break policies. Keep in mind a few details:

Not every state requires meal and rest breaks by law.

Have a clear way to track and document meal breaks, which if provided must be uninterrupted – discourage employees from eating at their desks. In fact, a break room is ideal for this purpose and it keeps the smells of reheated fish and burnt popcorn out of the working areas.

Lactation breaks can be the same as rest breaks, but companies must provide a space other than a bathroom for the pumping mother.

3.     Leaves of Absence and Time-Off Policies

Outline in detail all guidelines for employees missing time from work for any reason. Questions to consider:

Do you want to merge vacation and sick leave for ease of administration or keep them separate so as to avoid having to accrue the entire bucket?

Do you want "use it or lose it" leave policies? Are you located in a state that does not allow those policies?

Do you want to pay accrued yet unused vacation time at the end of a person's employment? Are you in a state that does not require it?

How do you want to handle leave for events like parent-teacher conferences? Are you located in a state that requires it?

Do you want to require employees to give you their jury duty pay? (It often only covers parking and lunch costs.)

How do you want to handle military leave?  Bereavement leave? 

4.     Integrate all leaves-of-absence polices, including any return-to-work programs.

With all of the ADA changes since 2009, many medical conditions that may not have risen to ADA-protected status pre-2009, will qualify for ADA protections now. You should establish an integrated management process where HR collaborates with operations and legal to review any person missing time from work. Ensure no one falls through the cracks and that you have met all of your legal obligations under the ADA, FMLA, workers compensation laws and your own policies.

5.     Will you enforce a policy consistently?

If not, do not adopt it or put it in writing. An oft-seen example is with performance or conduct standards. More specifically, a manager is not willing to enforce conduct standards against his top performer, but holds those less-productive employees to the written standard. This manager gives the top performer more chances to improve or dismisses his conduct with "that's just John" excuses. This type of inconsistency can expose a company to accusations of favoritism, if not discrimination, depending on the players involved. Another example is with employee reference policies. If employees or managers are prohibited from writing or providing employees with letters of recommendation, that policy needs to be brought into the 21st century by expanding it to social media sites. LinkedIn, for example, allows members to "recommend" others with whom they are connected. This is the same as a reference in today's world. If you do not intend to prohibit such "recommendations" online, you should remove it from your policy. I have seen several senior executives of companies "recommend" former colleagues with no repercussions even though the company has a "no reference" policy.

6.     Social-Media Policies: To Have or Not to Have

Does your company have an overall social-media plan for the business? If not, a separate social-media policy may not be necessary.

Any social-media policy should be consistent with your company social-media program. For example, if you are going to use social media such as Twitter for client-facing, marketing purposes, why would you restrict your Internet access to your employees to Twitter?  At the very least, all of your standard policies should be updated to include all social-media platforms. After all, the rules of the game haven't changed, but the game board and its pieces have changed tremendously and continue to do so at a rapid pace.

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7.     Technology and Information Policies

Although more complete and detailed information, communication and technology policies may exist elsewhere, be sure to clearly explain in your guidebook what is considered appropriate or inappropriate use of your company's computer and software systems. This is a prime place to (1) point out the employee's role in protecting any personally-identifiable information your company may collect on your clients, customers and employees and (2) emphasize the importance of data security and protections. Further, make sure your ICT systems are robust enough to support your policies and practices. For example, if your policy requires that your systems will block certain sites, monitor email traffic, or monitor social media or other website posts, be sure your ICT systems can manage all of those tasks. Empty policies ring hollow and cannot be enforced consistently.

8.     Be clear who can "speak" for the company.

Do you want your employees to be ambassadors for your company? Do you care what they say, post, blog or publish about your company or its products or services? Many companies choose to vigorously protect their brand and aggressively ensure that all messages about their brand remain consistent. Regardless of your company's position, your policies should communicate your perspective. If your company's position is more like the latter, be sure to designate who within the company can speak as the company to the public and to whom your employees should refer any questions.

9.     Health and Safety programs

Your trail guidebook should show employees and managers the paths the company is taking to provide a safe and healthy working environment. Explain relevant procedures that should be followed and reporting processes for every situation from an injury on the job to workplace violence to OSHA standards.

10.  Essentially, make sure your policies are in line with your company's goals.

For example, you may have a company goal to attract the best and brightest of today's college graduates, but you have a policy that prohibits employees from surfing the Internet, using email for personal purposes, or working from home. Your recruiters are most likely using social media (from sites like Monster.com to LinkedIn) to find these new graduates, and this policy is contrary to the way "millenniums" work and expect to work. They look for jobs via social media. They judge employers on their website and Internet presence. They expect flexible work hours and telecommuting options. They expect to work for forward-facing companies and have ready access to technology. All policies in your guidebook should be in step with your overall corporate strategies and focus.

Before putting pen to paper, be sure to collaborate with your business partners in operations, technology/ICT and finance departments so that everyone is on the same page with each and every policy in your guidebook. At least annually, update them on any changes and review any looming or large issues that arose in the past year. Use the guidebook as your guide to training managers on how to be better managers. But, at the same time, do not over-detail your policies. Flexibility is important, as each day with employees is different and real life always seems to creep into the workplace.

Finally, keep in mind that the Golden Rule is alive and well in the workplace -- or at least it should be. Your employee guidebook communicates to your employees how they will be treated and what you expect from them. If employees "break the rules," what are the consequences? They can be fired. On the other hand, what happens if the company fails to follow its own rules? While there might not be any direct consequences, companies and employers lose face and credibility with their employees. Leadership essentials require integrity as the base for all relationships and the core of leadership.

As General Norman Schwarzkopf once asserted, leadership requires a combination of strategy and character. "But, if you must be without one," he said, "be without strategy." 

Amy Burton Loggins is a member of the employment, labor and immigration practice group at Taylor English Duma. She has a broad-based range of experience, from employee-relations issues to collaborating on employee transitions during restructures and acquisitions. She can be reached at aloggins@taylorenglish.com.

 

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