Give Your Employee Handbook an Annual Checkup

Give Your Employee Handbook an Annual Checkup

November 08, 2023

Your employee handbook is a valuable way to inform employees about company policies, practices and expectations. Or, at least, it should be.

Too often, employee handbooks become overstuffed, patchwork tomes that rarely get used.

To ensure your employee handbook remains an asset, make time each year to review it for relevance and ease of use.

These four steps can help you get the most out of your annual checkup:

  • Use simple language.
  • Update policies.
  • Strike a balance between specificity and ambiguity.
  • Avoid contractual obligations.

Use simple language

Simple language doesn’t mean watered-down language. Concise, easily understood wording enhances your handbook’s accessibility and value. 

Many employee handbooks include remnants from the past, with addendums tacked on as the years roll by. Each year, you should read your handbook through the eyes of a new employee. Update, modify or eliminate text as needed. Make it a cohesive whole that employees with varying backgrounds, experiences and education can easily understand. 

Check that the handbook is written for your employees, not your legal team. Avoid confusing jargon and acronyms. 

That said, it’s essential to cover legal rights and protections. But as you cover legal groundwork such as equal employment opportunity laws, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and discrimination claims, simplify and shorten whenever possible.

Update policies

Don’t let your handbook grow stale. Your annual checkup should include a review of evolving issues. For example, post-pandemic, you should update your policies on remote and hybrid work arrangements. 

Spell out your policies and expectations regarding new and existing work arrangements. If there are exceptions, list them. Pay particular attention to off-the-clock work related to remote environments. 

With remote and hybrid schedules, the lines between work and personal time can get blurred. However, per the FLSA, it is illegal for nonexempt employees to perform unpaid work. And there are various tests for determining which employees are exempt from the overtime requirements. Paying them on a salary basis is not, by itself, sufficient.

Check with your legal team for details. Then clearly explain your policies, including any prohibitions on work times and how to report hours worked.

Strike a balance

The ideal employee handbook creates a balance between specificity and ambiguity. 

Too much detail can make for a lengthy, cumbersome read. Excessively specific handbooks also run the risk of painting you into a corner. For example, if your handbook states that a certain action always leads to termination, your company loses the ability to consider context, differing interpretations and other factors. 

In the case of employee misconduct, it’s better to list unacceptable behaviors and a range of potential disciplinary measures. This offers examples of misbehavior while allowing HR to weigh the next moves.

On the other side, overly broad handbooks are not helpful. For instance, some handbooks state that a dress code serves an important business objective. They may cite the need to impress clients and potential job candidates. Or they may talk about the link between professional appearance, mindset and work quality. But without details or examples of proper work attire, this section would be unhelpful to employees.

Avoid contractual obligations

Legal challenges often stem from supervisor and employee interactions about job status or security, notes the industry news site BenefitsPRO. During your annual review, ensure your employee handbook defines your organization’s current terms of employment — for example, the legal presumption of an at-will arrangement. Clearly state that discussions between employees and supervisors do not create legal obligations. 

The same goes for your handbook itself. BenefitsPRO recommends inserting a prominent, bold statement that your employee handbook does not create a contract between employee and employer. Make sure this statement is included in subsequent iterations of your handbook.

It's a good idea to notify employees of any changes to your handbook and require signed acknowledgments that they have received, read and understood the most recent version. 

Create a valuable tool

With annual updates, your employee handbook will retain its organizational value. Employees and supervisors benefit from a handy reference guide with clear expectations. Your HR team saves time and effort with an easy-to-read handbook that answers common employee questions. And precise wording puts your company on solid legal footing.

For more ideas on updating and improving your employee handbook, talk with your benefits adviser. They can help you understand employment rules and regulations and deliver best practices for handbook communications.