Employees and their supervisors need to know the rules, and handbooks need to communicate that information. But getting the most from a handbook means putting it to work in onboarding new employees, training managers and supervisors, defending employers when employees complain, and more.
Charles S. Plumb and Courtney Bru, attorneys with McAfee & Taft in Tulsa, Oklahoma, urge employers to regularly review their handbooks and make needed changes—and early in the year is a good time to embark on an update.
Plumb and Bru recently conducted a Business and Legal Resources webinar titled “Employee Handbook Updates for 2017: A Critical Refresher on the Most Current Changes to Include” in which they offered advice on policies to include and how to put the document to work.
Orientation, training tool
Plumb urges employers to keep in mind that their handbook can be invaluable in introducing new employees to the company’s operations. Whether a handbook is in hard-copy or electronic form, all new employees should be trained on its provisions and should acknowledge that they’ve seen it, read it, understand it, and know how to comply with its provisions.
So the onboarding period is the perfect time to communicate procedures and guidelines employees are expected to follow. Also, using a handbook in onboarding and training “improves the chances that we’re going to make consistent decisions,” regardless of what department or site location the employee works in, Plumb says.
Plumb also suggests that employers use the handbook in their supervisor training to make sure all supervisors understand how to apply policies consistently throughout the organization. Since supervisors are in the trenches on a day-to-day basis and they’re charged with applying policies and procedures, they need frequent training on the handbook.
Including the handbook as part of new employee orientation and supervisor training reduces the likelihood that a handbook will be put on a shelf and forgotten while provisions become obsolete and laws change.
“If we haven’t breathed life into the handbook by using it as an orientation tool for new employees or using it as a training tool for supervisors and managers, it ends being a problem,” Plumb says, adding that he’s seen instances where supervisors and managers “are absolutely unfamiliar with (a handbook’s) terms or its provisions.”
Handbook as defense
A handbook often provides an important defense for an employer accused of acting in a discriminatory and unfair manner toward employees. It also comes into play if a state or federal regulatory agency questions an employer’s motives or decisions. “Having an effective and thorough employee handbook and manual often can be one of the most important defenses when faced with a lawsuit by an employee or former employee,” Plumb says.
While a handbook can be an important defense, failing to follow it can be used against an employer, Plumb says. For example, if an employer has a handbook for the rank and file and another manual for supervisors, HR needs to make sure they’re consistent and that supervisors are applying policies consistently.
Making an update
Employers have lots of resources to draw on when crafting a handbook from scratch or updating an existing document, Bru says. Employers can look to HR professional groups, other employers, and the internet as a starting point, but “handbooks are not one size fits all,” she says.
“So you don’t want to just have a handbook that you used in a different shop and you think it was really great an apply it,” Bru says. “What works for a medical office may not work for a manufacturing facility. So when you’re using these resources … be careful.” She suggests examining various handbook provisions to see what makes sense for the size, location, and type of workplace.
Bru also urges employers to include supervisors and managers in the process of either creating or updating a handbook. “It really is worth the time to have some discussions with people about what is the day-to-day life like” in the workplace, she says. Also, look at how policies are used.
Ask things like, “What are the problems, do our policies even match up with our practices?” Bru says. For example, she often reviews handbooks containing outdated policies that instruct employees how to submit paper timesheets when the company switched to an electronic system years ago. “Make sure that what you’re reading matches what’s happening in reality.”
Plumb says managers can provide vital information about what’s not working, and if they’re consulted and involved in the process of updating a manual they’ll naturally “buy into actually following these policies, and that’s priceless.”