HR Management & Compliance, Learning & Development

The Employee Handbook—Best Practices

Most organizations have created some form of employee handbook, and for good reason. Not only does this document serve as a means to inform employees of their rights and responsibilities but it also acts as a reference guide for all employer policies. Most handbooks include:

  • The company’s vision and mission statements;
  • Information about the organizational structure, personnel contacts, payroll administration, timekeeping practices, and employee benefits;
  • Policies regarding time off from work, such as vacation, personal days, sick days, FMLA, and all other applicable types of leave offered (some of which may be required by law in certain areas);
  • Policies prohibiting harassment and discrimination;
  • Policies outlining any formal disciplinary procedure;
  • Information regarding attendance expectations, including work start and end times and policies on how time off requests will be handled;
  • Policies pertaining to legal requirements, such as disability accommodation, FMLA procedures, pregnancy disability leave, jury duty, and military leave; and
  • Other policies on an as-needed basis, such as;
    • Social media usage policy
    • Confidentiality policy
    • Policies concerning the use of employer-provided equipment and software.

Best Practices When Creating a Comprehensive Employee Handbook

Beyond the basics above, here are some best practices for creating, communicating, and maintaining an employee handbook.

  • Always have employees sign and date a statement acknowledging they have received a copy of the employee handbook (or handbook updates). The statement should make it clear that it is the employee’s responsibility to read and understand the handbook and to follow the guidance within it, and that employees are subject to updates as they are distributed. Ideally, employees should also acknowledge receipt (again, with a signed statement) of each handbook update.
  • Include information affirming that employment is “at will” and identify the only individuals (if any) who have the power to change that. Ensure that nothing in the employee handbook could be construed as an employment agreement. This might include (but is not limited to) leaving out anything that discusses specific pay rates and/or reasons for termination. Having such clauses (or being too specific) may imply an agreement to always follow such rules or procedures. When in doubt, always consult with an employment attorney.
  • Understand that creating a policy means that the employer is creating an obligation to enforce (and follow) such a policy. If a policy is not followed or enforced, employers are setting themselves up for disputes and claims of unfair or biased treatment. In fact, some policies such as progressive disciplinary policies have been known to be construed as contractual obligations—thus, if an employer fails to follow a policy of their own construction, they could be sued. If a policy is created, it must be consistently followed in practice.
  • Remember that the handbook will be used on both sides of a disagreement or lawsuit. It should always be in compliance with all applicable laws (federal, state, and local). It should not take away any legal rights of employees, and should be carefully worded. If necessary, this might mean the employee handbook itself will contain only provisions that apply to all employees, and local additions or policies will be communicated separately.
  • Have a consistent means to distribute the handbook to new employees upon hiring and to distribute handbook updates to all employees. Ensure employees always know where the latest copy can be accessed in the workplace.
  • Ensure the handbook has provisions that relate to legal requirements, such as:
    • Antiharassment policies;
    • Information about FMLA leave (if applicable for the employer);
    • Equal employment information.
  • Include a statement that advises employees that the employer has the right to change the handbook at any time, with or without notice.
  • Remember that some policies can be presented in the handbook in summary form with the full policy details available in a separate location. This can be done if the handbook size is too cumbersome. For example, it is probably not necessary to outline every facet of the employer’s 401(k) options and enrollment details in the handbook, but it would be ideal to summarize the overall benefit and direct employees to any additional information elsewhere.
  • The entire handbook should have consistent terminology. It should be thoroughly proofread to ensure that policies are easy to understand and do not contradict each other.
  • Employers should assess whether the handbook needs to be translated into other languages (some states may require this for some or all policies).
  • Always have the handbook reviewed by an attorney who understands all aspects of employment law.

**This article does not constitute legal guidance. It is intended to be used solely for informational purposes. Always consult legal counsel with specific questions.**


About Bridget Miller:

Bridget Miller is a business consultant with a specialized MBA in International Economics and Management, which provides a unique perspective on business challenges. She’s been working in the corporate world for over 15 years, with experience across multiple diverse departments including HR, sales, marketing, IT, commercial development, and training.

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