HR Management & Compliance

Handbooks: How Do We Handle Handbook Revisions?

We’re working on revising our handbook, and the process has turned up a few questions. What procedure should we use to distribute the changes? Anything special we need to keep in mind when we do this? We’re planning some significant changes. Do we need to remind our people of our policies on some schedule (e.g., annually), or is the initial distribution enough? Can we keep our handbook online? If so, how do we distribute changes? — Randy R., HR Director in Anaheim


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We asked Diana Gregory for her thoughts on this common question.

You have valid concerns and ask very relevant questions about revising employee handbooks and communicating policies to employees. This project is often relegated to the back burner when in fact, failing to update and communicate policies can cause significant liability issues, not to mention employee confusion and morale problems.

First, here are some general guidelines that are important to keep in mind when issuing or updating policies, including policies in formal employee handbooks. An organization should always include a statement in its policies or handbook that it reserves the right to change its policies at any time, with or without notice (subject to applicable law), and that such policies are not a contract of any kind and do not affect the at-will status (if applicable) of the employment relationship. (This assumes we are addressing a nonunionized workforce.) Such language allows an employer to avoid an employee claim that there was some type of contract, implied or inferred from written material, and that altering it requires the employee’s agreement. If such language was not in the policy or handbook that you are changing, you will need to very carefully review the impact of the changes and consider the possibility of “grandfathering,” or negotiating with certain employees, due to liability issues.

Now, the questions you asked basically fall into two areas:

  1. Best practices for when to update and how to maintain an employee handbook
  2. Communicating policy changes

Best Practices for Updating an Employee Handbook

An employee handbook should be reviewed regularly to ensure that it complies with all relevant state and federal employment laws. Especially in a state like California, where employment laws change frequently, an annual update may be necessary and is a best practice. Also, if any organizational policies or practices have changed, the handbook should be updated accordingly. Keep in mind that policies are truly established by practice and application. For example, if a written policy states that bereavement leave will only be paid in the case of an immediate family member’s death but company practice has been to allow paid leave for the death of individuals who are not immediate family, the organization could be subject to challenges of discrimination if an employee is denied paid leave based on the written policy.

While it is probably not practical to reissue a completely new printed handbook with every change (note that this is where an online handbook can be very beneficial), issuing a memo or addendum that revises or adds a policy or procedure can serve an interim purpose until the handbook is reprinted. However, if you do issue a policy change by addendum or memo, it is very important to document every aspect of this process and have the employee sign and date an acknowledgment of receiving the revision. Making it a practice to update your handbook annually will help in avoiding too many separate pages and possible confusion.

There are also policies that you may want to consider reissuing separately every year, depending on your industry and specific organizational experience. For example, if you have employees involved in valuable intellectual property, sensitive confidential/proprietary information, Securities and Exchange Commission, or Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) privacy-related matters, reissuing your policies in these areas annually and requiring written acknowledgments ensures that employees understand their importance. In addition, annual reissuance and acknowledgment of antiharassment and antidiscrimination policies (including how to report concerns and how they will be handled) may reduce your liability exposure. It will be important evidence that illegal harassment/discrimination is not tolerated.

If you regularly communicate with your workforce online and are sure that most or all employees have regular access to online documents, putting your employee handbook online is perfectly acceptable. It may even be preferable because of the ease of updating. However, be sure that you have another way to communicate with any employees who do not have online access.

A few cautions regarding online handbooks and policy and procedure updates: Your organization needs to ensure a procedure of documenting notification to employees of any change being made, dating all current policies (last revised date), and posting the online handbook policies in a format that allows viewing and printing but does not allow alterations. When you have a policy or procedure change that has a high impact on any individuals, it is advisable to take other steps, too, to communicate with the affected employees, such as sending out an e-mail or a group voice mail. (See “Tips for Implementing New or Changing Policies,” CELA May 2006 issue).

Communicating Policy Changes

Your question indicates that your organization is making some significant changes to current policies. Depending on the type of policies you are changing, you may need to consider state and/or federal regulations, such as those that pertain to wages, benefits, or leaves of absence. This subject was covered extensively in the May issue of CELA in answer to another subscriber’s question. (See “Can We Enforce a New Version of a Policy That Hasn’t Officially Been Changed Yet?” CELA May 2006 issue.)

In your situation, be sure to review the information regarding communicating and distributing the updated/changed policies (handbook), and considering how you may need to handle application of some of your changes with current employees to avoid possible liability or morale issues.

Diana Gregory is a senior human resources specialist at the Walnut Creek office of Administaff, a professional employer organization and human resources outsourcing firm.