8 Aug 2022
13 Nov 2020
Staff handbooks, otherwise known as employee handbooks, are crucial tools that help ensure smooth communication between the employee and the employer. A staff handbook is a document communicating all the procedures, expectations, and policies that employees are expected to adhere to during their employment. Among these policies and procedures, while some are legally required to be included, others are included to ensure best workplace practice. With a well-written handbook, both employees and employers can benefit – employers can manage the workplace and employees can be aware of what is expected of them.
The policies and procedures that employers should include in a staff handbook include the following:
Sick leave policy
Health and Safety Statement
Bribery, Corruption, Embezzlement Policy
Equal employment opportunity
Day-to-day working arrangements
Social media policy
General organisational information
We will be covering everything you will need to know about the staff handbooks below.
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 them in the workplace.
Staff handbooks are usually created by the human resources department. Since they are created to convey essential information regarding standards and expectations of the employee in the workplace, they are usually given to employees on their first day of employment.
Staff handbooks are mutually beneficial to employers and employees. They help employers by allowing them to set clear expectations of their employees through policies and procedures.
Staff handbooks also help employees by providing them with guidance through setting clear expectations. The handbooks also guide the culture of an organisation by outlining the important background information about the organisation – such as its mission, values and purpose. By outlining the policies and procedures, employees can clearly understand the expectations set for them regarding the standard of conduct demanded.
In most common law jurisdictions, there are certain policies and procedures that employers are obliged to include in their staff handbooks. In addition to these mandatory policies and procedures, employers also tend to include others to ensure best workplace practices.
There are five policies and procedures that employers are legally obliged to include in their staff handbooks in most common law jurisdictions:
Staff handbooks must include disciplinary procedures. A disciplinary procedure should include a general outline of the various stages involved in the disciplinary procedure, for example, from a verbal warning to dismissal. The following is an example of such a general outline:
"Depending on the severity of the offence, the Company will follow the disciplinary process outlined below:
While the Company will generally take disciplinary action in a progressive manner, it reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to decide whether and what disciplinary action will be taken in a given situation."
The disciplinary procedure should then explain each stage in more detail.
In writing a disciplinary procedure, you should research whether there are requirements imposed in your specific jurisdiction. For instance, in England & Wales, the ACAS Code of Practice is authoritative and should be complied with.
You can find our customisable template disciplinary procedure here.
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 the complaint, how to complain and the procedures for appealing initial decisions.
Handbooks must include a sick leave policy. It should state the procedures an employee must follow if they are suffering from illness. Provisions describing if/when sick pay will be offered should also be included.
You can find our template for a sick leave policy here.
Employers often specify their pension arrangements in the staff handbook. This section should set out which, if any, pension schemes employees are given access to and how they can enroll themselves in them.
An employer should include a health and safety policy concerning its employees and company.
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. Companies also often include smoking, alcohol, and drug policies as part of their health and safety policy.
You can find our template health and safety statement here.
While these policies and procedures are not mandatory per se, employers should still consider including the following in their staff handbooks for best practice:
Employers should include a corruption/bribery policy in their staff handbooks.
Many jurisdictions have introduced laws making bribery a criminal offence – such as the Bribery Act 2010 (England & Wales), and the 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 to obtain/retain 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.
By including a bribery/corruption policy in their staff handbooks, employers can achieve two things. Firstly, they can convey to employees that bribery is unacceptable in the course of their employment. Secondly, if bribery does occur, with the policy, the company might be able to argue that they have taken the necessary steps to prevent bribery to defend itself from bribery allegations.
An equality policy or equal employment policy is not required by law, but it is still 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 committed against an employee. In certain jurisdictions, such as England & Wales, having an employment policy can serve as evidence whilst determining whether discrimination has occurred, and may even establish a defence against discrimination altogether.
An equality policy should convey the employer’s commitment to treating all employees equally regardless of their age, gender, marital status, pregnancy, disability, race religion, sex, sexual orientation or medical record. The following extract, from our template equal opportunity employment policy, is an example of how you can put this information in your policy:
"The Company will not tolerate any forms of discrimination, harassment, and unequal treatment in terms of recruitment, employment, promotion, transfer, training, working conditions, etc against employees encompassing the following characteristics:
(c) Gender, transsexuality, and transgender;
(d) Marital or civil partnership status;
(e) Pregnancy or maternity;
(f) Race, including ethnic and national origin;
(g) Religion or belief;
(i) Sexual orientation;
(k) HIV/AIDS vilification; and
(l) Medical record."
Employers should also 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.
You can find our customisable template equal employment opportunity policy here.
Employers should also include general information to help guide employees on a day-to-day basis.
For example, employers might consider including a dress code. This usually includes information about the dress code and what is considered appropriate attire as part of the code.
Employers might also include a policy regarding 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 the equipment is broken, etc.
Other common policies included in handbooks cover issues such as internet access, email, and workplace violence.
Employers should include a social media policy in their staff handbooks for best practices. A social media policy outlines the employer’s expectations when an employee posts information on any online network. It covers both posts on personal accounts and company-affiliated social media accounts.
A social media policy effectively outlines what is considered an ‘acceptable use’ of their online platforms and, on the contrary, what conduct negatively impacts business interests. It should do this by stating the responsibilities of employees when using social media. That might look something like this:
"Responsibilities of employees when posting on social media include:
Know and follow the rules
Be courteous and respectful
Be honest and accurate"
It should also outline what disciplinary action may be taken if the conduct is inappropriate.
You can find our customisable template social media policy here.
Employers should provide details of any employment benefits offered to employees.
Common benefits include medical, dental and retirement benefits, as well as life insurance. Employers should be specific with their descriptions of each benefit.
In describing their employee benefits, employers should consider:
Which employees are entitled to each benefit – full-time employees and/or part-time employees?
Whether the employee must contribute a certain amount to avail of these benefits
Who is covered by the benefits – does it only include the employee, or does it also include their spouses/ other dependents as well?
Employers should include data policies in their staff handbooks. Data policies outline the company’s responsibilities and duties, as well as the necessary procedures and protocols followed by the company to protect employees’ data and information.
You can find DocPro’s template data policy here.
A leave policy should be included in a staff handbook. A leave policy outlines the criteria and procedures to be followed for an employee to avail of different forms of leave. The types of leave covered typically include annual, sick, bereavement, maternity, paternity, casual, study, and unpaid leave.
You can find our customisable template leave policy here.
Employers should include general information about their organisation in their staff handbooks. The information should include the company's mission, purpose, and values. A message from the CEO or other members of the senior management team is also frequently featured.
As mentioned above, staff handbooks are not formal contracts, meaning that they are not legally binding. Employers should disclose that it is not a contract so that they can retain the flexibility to unilaterally change the handbook as they please. An exemplar disclaimer to this effect is as follows:
"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."
This will ensure employers retain 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 that employees should sign and return to them.
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.
An exemplar acknowledgement of this effect is as follows:
"I acknowledge that I have received [a copy / an electronic copy] of the Employee Manual (“Manual”). I have read the Manual, and I know what kind of information I can find in the Manual."
Once again, this acknowledgement can serve as important 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 takes precedence over past versions.
We created staff handbook templates that include all the procedures and policies discussed in this article and more. This policy is suitable for small businesses and large businesses alike and can be customised easily.
You can find our staff handbook template here.
After creating a staff handbook, employers should ensure that it is circulated amongst employees.
Employers have a choice between circulating the handbook electronically (in a PDF or Word format) or physically. Regardless of the method, 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.
Employment contracts are agreements that lay out the terms and conditions of employment. Employment contracts are intended to be legally binding and are backed by the law. As such, 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 are not intended to be legally binding. This is made clear as there are often explicit statements in staff books clarifying this. 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.”
Therefore, staff handbooks are not contracts with terms and conditions that are legally enforceable by the employer and employee. They solely exist to guide employees as to what an employer might do in certain situations.
This means that 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 the terms of an employment contract cannot unilaterally change its terms. The employer must obtain the consent of the employee to make any amendment.
Staff handbooks are not contracts and therefore are not legally binding. As such, an employer does not need the consent of the employee to make changes to the staff handbook. In other words, the employer can make changes to the staff handbook as they please.
It is not a requirement to have a staff handbook. However, it is prudent to have one for two reasons: legal and practical reasons.
Employers, firstly, create staff handbooks to comply with legal requirements. In many common law jurisdictions, employers are obliged to disclose policies and procedures to their employees. For example, in England & Wales, employers are obliged to convey to employees their disciplinary and grievance procedures. Many employers choose to use a staff handbook to disclose obligatory information.
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, and policies and procedures, a staff handbook answers many of the obvious questions employees often have when they begin work. This will mean fewer questions and a smaller burden on your HR team.
As earlier mentioned, staff handbooks set expectations for employees as to what an employer expects or might do in each situation. They also set expectations regarding the quality of work product, benefits, entitlement etc.
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, required to be conveyed by law, have been conveyed.
Furthermore, the policies/procedures in staff handbooks, whilst not being enforceable by employees themselves, are often nonetheless treated by courts as important evidence in determining whether an employer is in breach of something or not.
Having a standard staff handbook ensures that all employees are held to the same standard across the board.
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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