The Importance of Employee Handbooks
An employee is depressed and unable to focus at work because she has been the brunt of bullying that borders on harassment. She’s never been told that her job is on the line so she has minimized the concern in her mind. She is afraid to speak up for fear she will lose her job and she doesn’t know where she can turn.
Sound familiar? 2017 has been a year of continuous sexual harassment news stories as well as many other workplace issues including major wage and hour issues, ban the box laws, paid sick leave laws, and the concern with the legalization of marijuana and its effect on the workplace. The prevalence of the workplace issues has dramatically demonstrated the need for organizations to have a comprehensive, compliant, and up-to-date employee handbook with well-written policies, procedures, and clear expectations for employees.
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The reality of many organizations, though, is that there is always more work to do than hands and minds to do it. Living in the tyranny of the urgent has become a norm and, in some cases, an organizational culture that doesn’t allow time and effort to be spent on what may be construed as one more document employees have to read. Although most leaders, on the surface, theoretically agree on the importance of having an employee handbook, many don’t actually sit down, research the items needed, weed out items better put in an operational manual, make organizational decisions for crucial policies, compile the information in a format that is readable, and then update it as needed as federal and state laws continue to evolve and organizational policies change.
However, employers should be aware that, whether an organization has one employee or 5,000 employees, it’s essential to have an employee handbook that is used consistently across the organization.
An employee handbook is an employee’s “go-to” document from their first day of work through their final day of work for questions or concerns that arise. It provides easily accessible and clearly understandable information and, when needed, refers employees to the location of where more detailed information may be found. Providing a balance between the necessary information and too much information is vital so it doesn’t become so cumbersome that it sits on a shelf and gets dusty from lack of use.
The most significant reason that organizations should have a well-written employee handbook is for awareness and compliance of federal and state laws and regulations. Given the complexity of legal implications, it’s important to define laws and regulations that affect all employees, regardless of their location or proximity to the organization.
Any organization, regardless of size, may be sued by an employee. While an employee handbook isn’t a guarantee against lawsuits, a good handbook that is consistently applied is an important risk management tool that minimizes the risk of legal action and provides a first-line defense against employee claims of wrongdoing by an organization or a particular leader.
Many studies have been completed that demonstrate positive behavior and more in-depth engagement happen when people understand what is expected of them and when they are able to meet those expectations. Managers have discovered that employees may be happier and more productive when they know what is expected of them and what they may expect from their leadership. The absence of articulated expectations does not mean that there are not expectations. It simply means that employees will define their own expectations, whether or not they are accurate. A well-designed handbook that sets expectations often is the foundational building block in creating a positive organizational culture.
Communication is an essential part of life and the lack of communication is, in itself, a form of communication. It takes multiple repetitions and multiple methods of communication for information to be learned and absorbed enough to change behavior. It should not be a surprise that communication, even over-communication is essential for an organization to succeed. The employee handbook is the first line of communication for employees and should be the foundation for multiple other communications that confirm, support and provide reasoning for the written policies in the employee handbook.
The handbook is the first step in providing organizational consistency. Once policies set expectations and are communicated to employees, the handbook provides reassurance in writing that the organization will act in a certain manner. The handbook makes it clear that policies stated are not simply for a select few employees but for every employee from the top leader to the lowest-level employee. Consistency eliminates confusion and written policies that are enforced consistently demonstrate to every employee a sense of impartiality within the organization.
A well-written employee handbook provides a foundation upon which the employee may build their organizational knowledge and develop behaviors consistent with organizational culture. If policies are not applied consistently, that foundation could crack and build a deep-seeded distrust in the organization as well as its leaders.
Management of Employees
A well-written employee handbook is intended to help managers know how to manage their employees and gives them confidence in decision-making. It magnifies policies that are either effectively communicated and enforced, or are ignored, and is ultimately a reflection on the leadership of the organization. In fact, before adding a policy to an employee handbook, employers should carefully consider the benefits as well as the implications if that policy is not consistently applied across the organization.
An employee handbook should be an organic document as it needs to be updated to reflect new laws and regulations as well as new organizational policies and procedures. It should provide clear direction and avenues to address employee concerns and it should not promise anything the organization, or one of its managers, is not willing to deliver.
With the time spent in creating and maintaining a current, compliant handbook, essential time may be saved for more strategic work, the organization may be more efficient and productive, there may be better employee engagement, and the organizational culture may be enhanced.
Employees like the one mentioned at the beginning of this article should never be left to wonder, grow more dejected, become increasingly unproductive, and eventually leave the organization. Given an employee handbook that defines a procedure of reporting possible concerns, eliminates fear of retaliation and provides options for speaking to someone in confidence, this employee could be productively functioning for the betterment of the organization.