Is your employee handbook handy? We ask in both senses of the term: Yours should be readily available and within easy reach, but it should also be practical, relevant and, dare we suggest, fun to read.

Year end is a great time to review your employee handbook to make sure it meets these criteria. You can look back over the preceding 12 months and consider whether and how your handbook has served its purpose. Plus, now is a perfect time to anticipate any regulatory changes that take effect in 2016.

Find the right balance

Understandably, many employers view their employee handbooks as very serious documents with two primary functions:

  1. To establish clear boundaries around employee behavior, and
  2. To provide legal support for any adverse action the organization might need to take.

No doubt, these are perfectly valid points. But, ideally, an effective handbook will go one step further and encourage employees to feel good about working for you. It can even strengthen your recruitment efforts when job candidates read it during interview visits. The trick is to balance these two purposes — creating a handbook that’s clear about appropriate behavior and disciplinary actions, but also motivational in its enthusiasm for your organization’s mission and activities.

Connect with your culture

So, as you review your handbook, look carefully at whether its language really connects with your culture. Sometimes, employers will pepper their handbooks with platitudes without really considering whether these statements reflect reality.

For example, if a handbook states “Quality is our most important objective,” yet employees are constantly encouraged to cut costs or work quickly— instead of adhere to quality standards — what does it say? Make sure your handbook encompasses all of your strategic objectives and explains to employees how they can appropriately work toward these goals.

Another common disconnect is an employee handbook that states, “We believe in work-life balance,” yet the organization still adheres to policies such as required overtime, limited vacation time and inflexible scheduling. If you’ve revised your approach to work-life balance in recent years, make sure your handbook reflects — and proudly proclaims — the changes.

Do some research

If you haven’t revised your employee handbook in a long time, it may be a good idea to do some research. Explore ways to make the structure more clear, the language more interesting and the design more vibrant. By networking with others in your industry and, of course, exploring the Internet, you should be able to gather a wealth of information.

A word of caution: When it comes to employee handbooks, one size doesn’t fit all. Avoid any inclination to borrow a handbook from another organization and adapt it to your needs. An appropriate tone for one type of company may be unsuitable for yours, and readers could catch on to the lack of authenticity.

Apply the same caution to downloading handbook templates, or samples of handbooks, from the Internet. Although these can be interesting to look at, and there’s no harm in using them for inspiration, you can’t assume they’re accurate or comprehensive enough to truly represent your organization.

Protect yourself

Although making your handbook more readable and accessible is important, it’s ultimate and undeniable purpose is to protect your organization. Therefore, a critical activity every year should be to update your handbook’s contents for legal accuracy. To do so, work directly with your employment attorney to determine whether new laws or regulations have been passed that you need to address.

As your attorney will probably tell you, employee handbooks (and the employment and disciplinary polices therein) must be written carefully so that you don’t paint yourself into a corner. That is, your handbook needs to include important caveats and other language stipulating that its provisions don’t represent a contract. Yet, at the same time, the handbook needs to reinforce your “at will” employment policy. These are all important issues to discuss at year end in light of legal and regulatory changes.

Last, many employers today place a disclaimer in their handbooks and require employees to sign an acknowledgment that they’ve received and read it. Doing so can strengthen your position in legal challenges that may arise. Should you make substantial changes to your handbook — or even minor ones — don’t hesitate to draft a new acknowledgment for your staff to sign.

Let us take a look

So let’s ask again: Is your employee handbook handy? Putting it in an easily accessible place is the easy part! The tougher task is ensuring it’s readable and interesting, representative of your organization, and up to date on all the latest employment regulations and laws. Please contact us at Performance Dimensions Group for an objective look at your employee handbook. We’d be happy to provide some useful, informative feedback.