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Now is the time to create, or update, employee handbook

Published in the Rochester Business Journal

There was a time when employee handbooks, with their drab green covers and stale, often outdated policies, were considered necessary but not particularly vital to a company's well-being. That view is shifting rapidly today as advances in technology change how we work and communicate, both on and off the job.

Consider this: A staggering 4 billion text messages zip through the air every day, according to CTIA, an association of wireless technology providers. With so much communication flying around, it's not a stretch to think that your employees could be sending out the details of their private lives, remarks about colleagues and, inadvertently or not, confidential business information.

Add the recent proliferation of social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook to the mix, and it's easy to see why companies large and small are thinking differently about the importance of spelling out policies in employee handbooks.

"We are seeing an increased emphasis in handbooks on technology-related policies such as the appropriate use of the Internet and messaging, as well as policies on blogging and social networks," says Marion Blankopf, a labor and employment attorney with Nixon Peabody LLP.

High on the list of concerns is the potential for employee postings and blogs to leak proprietary information or to damage a company's reputation with false, disparaging or reckless communications.

"It is important that employees understand that trade secrets and customer information are confidential and proprietary," Blankopf says. "They also need to realize that if they are messaging or blogging via company computer or phone, they should not have an expectation of privacy."

Driving while texting is another concern on the radar these days, Blankopf adds. If your employees are required to drive during work hours, you must make sure they understand the laws that prohibit texting while driving, as well as the requirement to use hands-free devices while talking on mobile phones.

Why have an employee handbook?

Since company policies exist, whether or not they are written, employers of any size should take the time to develop guidelines and spell them out in an employee handbook that is updated at least once a year. Supervisors armed with clear, written guidelines are better able to make consistent, unemotional decisions that will hold up if challenged later.

In addition to minimizing legal liability, a regularly updated handbook can help to communicate a company's intentions toward its employees and clarify expectations about work hours, vacation and holiday policies, sick and personal days, overtime pay, dress rules, causes for disciplinary action and other matters. Other benefits of developing or updating an employee handbook include:

  • Underscoring benefits. Companies spend huge sums of money each year on benefits, including statutory benefits such as workers' compensation. The employee handbook is an ideal place to remind employees of the value of their benefits package.

  • Saving valuable management time. Formal employment policies reduce the time spent addressing recurring situations, such as employee absences due to illness, bereavement or bad weather. Without written policies, managers can waste a lot of time deciding how to handle these cases.
  • Fulfilling legal requirements. A handbook can communicate information that companies are legally obligated to provide. For example, companies with more than 50 employees must provide information about the Family and Medical Leave Act to employees.

  • Sharing company values, culture and history. The employee handbook is an ideal opportunity for the founding leader to bond with employees by sharing his or her personal vision for the business. Employees want to know about their company's history and its successes.

Many employers today provide handbooks electronically in a PDF or store them on the company intranet or human resources information system. This saves paper and allows easy updating. Hard copies should be provided to employees who lack easy access to the electronic handbook. It also is recommended that companies collect a paper form acknowledging receipt of the handbook for each employee's file and that employees be required to review the handbook and sign a new form whenever material changes are made.

What's in your handbook?

Here is a checklist of the policies your handbook should cover:

  • employment at will;
  • non-discrimination;
  • non-harassment;
  • individuals with disability;
  • code of ethics;
  • employment classifications;
  • working hours;
  • pay practices;
  • attendance;
  • summaries of each benefit;
  • statutory benefits;
  • leaves of absence;
  • performance appraisals
  • standards of conduct;
  • alcohol and drugs;
  • electronics communications policy.

Updates from 2009

Several important changes made by legislation passed in 2009 should be reflected in employee handbooks. They include:

  • The extension of COBRA coverage to 36 months. This is a New York law that goes into effect for most employers when an employee's insurance contract is renewed or modified, generally on January 1.
  • FMLA policy. The Family and Medical Leave Act was revised effective January 16, 2009. Included were several changes in practices involving family and medical leave, as well as new regulations for leave related to military service.
  • EEO policies. Protection was extended for victims of domestic violence through New York law and for genetic information through the federal Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which took effect in November. These protections require new wording for the non-harassment and non-discrimination policies in employee handbooks.

Developing a handbook

Every company, no matter how small, has policies on hiring, termination and all the other important considerations in between. These policies exist whether they are written or not. Often employers postpone developing or updating their employee handbooks and instead rely on a hodgepodge of memos and on-the-fly enforcement efforts.

Without formal policies, supervisors face the difficult task of handling situations case by case. This fosters an environment of inconsistent management and can leave a company exposed. While creating formal policies is time-consuming, a casual approach in these sensitive areas is risky.

An employer can dramatically reduce the time spent to develop a handbook by using an outside human resource professional to draft it. A handbook specialist can bring a level of expertise and legal accuracy to the task, will have a relationship with employment attorneys and may have the resources to update the document as needed to reflect changes in the law.

There are many important business reasons for having an updated employee handbook as the new year approaches. High on the list is the proliferation of electronic communication, authorized and unauthorized, within your workplace. Creating formal policies on this issue will let employees know that their blogging, posting and tweeting are subject to standards of conduct. And addressing the changes in employment law that have occurred in the last 12 months will keep employers and employees on the same page.


© HR Works, Inc.

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HR Works, Inc., headquartered at 200 WillowBrook Office Park in Fairport (Rochester), New York, with an office in East Syracuse, is a human resource management outsourcing and consulting firm serving clients throughout the United States. HR Works provides scalable strategic human resource management and consulting services, including: affirmative action programs; benefits administration outsourcing; HRIS self-service technology; full-time, part-time and interim on-site HR managers; HR audits; legally reviewed employee handbooks and supervisor manuals; talent management and recruiting services; and training of managers and HR professionals.