HR Management & Compliance

4 Common, Practical Problems in Employment Manuals

Every HR professional struggles, sweats, and possibly rips their hair out (if they have any) over what to put into an employment manual and how best to minimize litigation for their company in the future. Worrying exclusively about liability rather than practicality, however, can lead to significant concerns. Here some common issues with employment manuals.

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1. Writing a Policy You Will Never Enforce

Writing policies you can’t or won’t enforce creates significant liability issues for any company. It says, “We decided what the expectation was, but we are choosing not to enforce it.”

The approach casts doubt on your intentions and your other policies and undercuts your authority. Remember, policies need buy-in not only from HR and the C-suite but also front-line managers. They need to be understandable and a priority for your managers and team leaders for consistent practices and enforcement.

No one wants a manager to say in a deposition, “I have never seen that policy before, and I don’t know why we have it.” Craft policies with your actual practices and priorities in mind.

2. Writing a Policy to Cover Every Contingency

What kind of dress code will we have if a meteor hits the earth or there is a second ice age? No one can write a policy to cover every single contingency, and the more complex and detailed a policy is, the less likely it is to be effective.

Address the expectations and the guidelines for how they will be achieved, but leave yourself some wiggle room to account for issues you could never have anticipated. In a disciplinary policy, for example, you could state the nature and type of your response will be at the company’s sole discretion, or you could note any policy is subject to change.

3. If I Can’t Understand It, I Can’t Do It

Many employees acknowledge in writing they’ve read the entirety of the policy manual, but most haven’t actually done so. They tend to focus on things like how time is recorded, paid time off (PTO) is accrued, and disciplinary processes are imposed, frequently giving little thought to most of the rest of the policies.

Be clear, concise, and understandable. If you need a degree in higher mathematics to determine how PTO is accrued or used, the policy won’t be helpful for your employees.

4. Trying to Be All Things to All People

It’s tough to write a policy everybody understands, loves, and celebrates. Such a policy probably doesn’t even exist. When you try to please everyone with discussions about how you’re all one big happy family, you set unreasonable expectations for the workplace.

Work is, quite frankly, work—it’s not a holiday or a family gathering (because hopefully we pay you to be there and don’t let you mouth off and get drunk at the dinner table). Employees will appreciate clear, concise, and pragmatic policies more than open-ended promises of being treated like family.

Bottom Line? Be Clear and Consistent

Policy creation can be an intricate and complex process. Anyone who has ever written anything knows that making something clear and simple can be a lot harder than making it convoluted and complicated.

You need to be aware of specific laws for any state in which your company operates. In Iowa, there are special rules relating to Veterans Day as a holiday, certain wage-and-hour issues, and the black hole of the state’s drug testing law. Don’t assume one state’s policies will work in another.

Make sure your policies are clear and consistent and meet the needs in the place where you’re doing business.

Jo Ellen Whitney is an attorney with the Davis Brown Law Firm in Des Moines, Iowa. You can reach her at

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