Regardless of whether you are a small business looking to hire your first employee, or a large business looking to expand your team, every business should have a staff handbook.
However, writing a staff handbook is no easy task. Employers are often unsure as to what to include in a staff handbook and end up including lots of irrelevant information that lead to confused and overwhelmed employees.
This article will explore what a staff handbook is and will give a comprehensive overview of what items you should include in your staff handbook.
A staff handbook – also called an ‘employee handbook’, ‘employee manual’ or ‘company policy manual’ is a written document provided by employers to their employees outlining the employer’s procedures, policies, standards and expectations for the workplace.
They are usually created by the human resources department of organisations. It conveys essential information concerning the standards and expectations demanded of the employee in the workplace, and so is often given to employees on their first day of employment.
Staff handbooks are mutually beneficial to both employers and employees. They help employers by allowing them to set clear expectations of their employees through policies and procedures.
Staff handbooks help employees by providing them with guidance and by setting clear expectations. Staff handbooks provide guidance on the culture of an organisation by outlining important background information of the organisation – such as its mission, values and purpose. Moreover, by outlining the policies and procedures applicable in the workplace, employees benefit from clear expectations as to what conduct is acceptable and unacceptable.
Employment contracts are agreements that lay out the terms and conditions of employment. Employment contracts are intended, by the employer and employee, to be legally binding. Thereby, the terms and conditions included in an employment contract create rights and obligations for parties that are legally enforceable.
On the other hand, staff handbooks, generally, are not intended to be legally binding. This intention is often evidenced in staff handbooks by explicitly including a statement to this effect. An exemplar statement to this effect is as follows:
“I also understand that the purpose of this Manual is to inform me of the Company’s policies and procedures, and that it is not a contract of employment. Nothing in this Manual provides any entitlement to me or to any Company employee, nor is it intended to create contractual obligations of any kind.”
Staff handbooks, thereby, are not contracts with terms and conditions that are legally enforceable by the employer and employee. They solely exist to provide guidance to employees as to what an employer might do in a given situation.
This means, if an employer fails to follow a staff handbook perfectly in a given situation, an employee will not be able to go to court and try to enforce that policy or procedure to make sure the employer follows it properly.
Another upshot of a staff handbook not being legally binding, is that employers can unilaterally change anything in the handbook anytime they want.
Contracts that are legally binding, like employment contracts, can only be changed with the consent of all the parties to the contract. Thereby, an employer who wants to change terms of an employment contract, cannot unilaterally change its terms. The employer must obtain the consent of the employee to make such an amendment.
Staff handbooks, are not contracts and are not legally binding. As such, an employer need not obtain the consent of the employee before making any changes to the staff handbook. In other words, the employer can make any changes to the staff handbook as they please.
It is not a requirement whether legal or otherwise to have a staff handbook. Even though it is not a requirement to have a staff handbook, it is prudent to have one for the following reasons.
Employers have staff handbooks for two types of reasons: legal reasons and practical reasons.
Employers, firstly, create staff handbooks to comply with legal requirements. In many common law jurisdictions, employers are obliged to disclose particular policies and procedures to their employees. For example, in England & Wales, employers are obliged to convey to their employees their disciplinary and grievances procedures. Many employers choose the medium of ‘staff handbook’ to disclose this obligatory information.
We will cover the types of policies and procedures employers may be legally required to include in their staff handbook below.
Employers also have practical reasons to create a staff handbook for their employees. Practical reasons include:
By stating important information– such as its mission, values, purpose – along with the policies and procedures followed by the organisation, a staff handbook should answer many of the obvious questions employees often have when they begin new employment. This will mean, less questions and less burden on your human resources team.
As earlier mentioned, staff handbooks through its policies and procedures sets expectations for employees as to what an employer might do in a given situation. They also set expectations regarding the quality of work product, benefits entitlement etc.
Clearly setting these expectations for employees through a staff handbook will allow them to hit the ground running when they join your organisation, leading to higher productivity and better work performance.
Staff handbooks, protect employers by serving as evidence that certain policies/procedures, which by law are required to be conveyed to employees by employers, have in fact been so conveyed.
Furthermore, the policies/procedures in staff handbooks, whilst not being enforceable by employees in and of themselves, are often nonetheless treated by courts as important evidence and are highly influential in determining whether an employer is in breach of something or not.
There are certain policies and procedures that employers are obliged to include in their staff handbooks in most common law jurisdictions. There are also other policies and procedures which many employers include for best practice.
There are five policies and procedures that employers are legally obliged to include in their staff handbooks in most common law jurisdictions:
Staff handbooks should include disciplinary procedures. A disciplinary procedure should outline the various stages involved – from verbal warning to dismissal - including detailed descriptions of each stage.
In writing a disciplinary procedure, you should research whether there are particular requirements imposed in your specific jurisdiction. For instance, in England & Wales, the ACAS Code of Practice is authoritative and should be complied with.
Employers should include grievance procedures in their staff handbooks, outlining the procedures an employee should go through if they feel they have been unfairly or unjustly dealt with at the workplace or in disciplinary proceedings.
Grievance procedures should state who to approach with such a complaint, how to lodge a complaint and the procedure to appeal any initial decision.
Handbooks should include a sick leave policy. It should state the procedures an employee is to follow if they are suffering from illness. Provisions describing when sick pay will be offered should also be included.
(v) Health and Safety Statement
An employer should include a health and safety policy concerning its employees and company more generally.
Typical items covered in a health and safety policy include procedures to follow in case of minor accidents, serious accidents, or a fire in the workplace. Additionally, companies often include smoking policies and alcohol and drug policies as part of their health and safety policy as well.
There are many policies and procedures that employers should include in their staff handbooks for best practice. These include:
Employers should include a corruption/bribery policy in their staff handbooks.
Jurisdictions worldwide have introduced laws making bribery a criminal offence – such as the Bribery Act 2010 (England & Wales), and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (USA).
Many of these laws hold companies liable for the criminal offence of bribery, if any of the company’s employees make a bribe for the purposes of obtaining/retaining business for the company. Many, however, such as the Bribery Act, create a defence for companies if they can show they have adequate procedures to prevent such bribery.
Employers, by including a bribery/corruption policy in their staff handbooks can, thereby, achieve two things. Firstly, they can clearly convey to employees that bribery is unacceptable in the course of their employment. Secondly, even if bribery does occur, using the policy, the company might be able to argue that they have taken adequate procedures to prevent the bribery and defend itself from bribery allegations.
An equality policy or equal employment policy is not required by law. It is, however, good practice to include one in a staff handbook.
Including an equality policy is good practice because it can help employers avoid liability if they are the subject of a lawsuit for discriminatory treatment allegedly committed against an employee. In certain jurisdictions, such as England & Wales, having an employment policy is often influential evidence in determining whether discrimination has occurred, and can even establish a defence in some cases to discrimination altogether.
An equality policy should convey the employer’s commitment to treating all employees equally. Employers should state that their company provides equal access to wages, employment opportunities, benefits and promotions to employees and other individuals regardless of characteristics such as race, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation etc.
Employers should also include general information to guide employees on a day-to-day basis.
For example, employers might consider including a dress code. They might state what the dress code is, and what is considered appropriate attire as part of this dress code.
Employers might also include a policy on the use of office equipment. This would include guidance on matters such as the removal of office equipment from the office, procedures to follow if equipment is broken etc.
Other common policies included in handbooks cover items such as internet access, email and workplace violence.
Employers should include a social media policy in their staff handbooks for best practice. A social media policy outlines the employer’s expectations when an employee posts information on any online network. It generally covers both posts on personal accounts or company affiliated social media accounts.
A social media policy effectively outlines what is considered ‘acceptable use’ of such online platforms and what conduct may impact the interests of the business. What disciplinary action may be taken if conduct is inappropriate.
Employers should provide details of any employment benefits offered to employees.
Common benefits include medical and dental benefits, life insurance and retirement benefits. Employers should make sure to be detailed in their descriptions of each benefit.
In describing their employee benefits, employers should consider:
Employers should also make sure to include the following disclaimers in their staff handbooks:
As mentioned above, staff handbooks are not contracts and are not legally binding. By ensuring a handbook is not legally binding, employers will retain the flexibility to unilaterally change the handbook as they please. To make sure this is the case, a disclaimer should be included in the handbook to this effect (see above).
This will ensure employers retain maximum flexibility by being able to change the handbook when and as they see fit.
An exemplar statement to this effect is as follows:
“The Company reserves the right to modify any of our policies and procedures, including those covered in this Manual, at any time. We will seek to notify you of such changes by email and other appropriate means. However, such a notice is not required for changes to be effective”
Employers should include an acknowledgement which employees should sign and return to the employer.
The acknowledgement should state that the employee has been made aware of and has read all the policies and procedures as included in the staff handbook.
Once again, such an acknowledge can be very influential evidence, in case of a dispute between an employee and employer.
A statement should be included to the effect that the current version of the handbook is the most up-to-date and has effect in place of any previous versions circulated within the company.
After creating a staff handbook, an employer should ensure it is circulated amongst employees.
Employers, generally have a choice between circulating the handbook electronically (in a PDF or Word format) or physically. Regardless of which method is chosen, employers should ensure that employees have easy access to the handbook. Employers should ensure the handbook is duly sent to all employees – whether by email or otherwise if being distributed electronically, or physically delivered to each employee if being distributed physically.
DocPro offers a staff handbook templates including all the procedures and policies discussed in this article and more. This policy is suitable for small businesses and large businesses alike.
You can find DocPro’s staff handbook template here: https://docpro.com/doc1158/employee-handbook-manual-company
Please note that this is just a general summary of the position under common law and does not constitute legal advice. As the laws of each jurisdiction may be different, you may want to speak to your lawyer.
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