Putting It In Writing

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Developing And Applying Company Handbooks

Whether it’s the best of times or the worst of times, communication is a crucial factor in the success of any business. If your employees aren’t clear on the basic principles and procedures that apply to your organization, not only will things start to run amok...you run the risk of deflating morale as well.

The obvious antidote to this is to put it in writing. Company handbooks, when written and applied properly, serve as an efficient way of maintaining consistency across the entire enterprise, improving communication between employees and management, and promoting fairness for all.

Patti Stoner, senior human resources consultant at HR Strategies, believes that

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employee handbooks should take a “big-picture” approach. “It shouldn’t be too specific, because it locks you into specific actions to take,” she said. For example, if the handbook states that the company will follow five steps before terminating someone, the firm is locked into pursuing those same five steps to the letter, every time. “It should include broad guidelines.”

The Sextant Group recently moved its employee handbook to the firm’s intranet, doing away with the need to distribute a printed version to its offices across the country. “It’s very easy to log in and search for a particular component of the handbook rather than trying to leaf through a large paper document,” explained Sean Weida, Sextant’s principal of operations. If an employee needs information on vacation policy, for example, they can pull it up on their computer. Additionally, having the handbook on the intranet is especially practical when it comes to updating the document.

One of the areas where companies get into trouble relates to how the employee handbook is worded. “You can create a contract for employment if you’re not careful in the way you write it,” Stoner warned. “I recommend making sure you put a strong disclaimer in there that it’s not a contract of employment, and that management preserves their discretion to operate the business within the flexibility of business change.” It’s safest to get an HR consultant or employment attorney to read the employee handbook to ensure that the wording doesn’t present the potential for trouble down the road.

Mike Bradley, president of Safeguard Security and Communications in Scottsdale, AZ, explains that his company’s employee handbook— which addresses 350 staff members— is very detailed. “We are very clear about how you escalate concerns within the organization, such as if people feel uncomfortable in their position, or if there’s a claim of harassment,” he said. “There are very specific procedures that they have to follow and that protects both the employee and the company, and when it comes to legal and liability-related issues, you need to be clear.”

At the same time, Bradley isn’t a strong believer in company manuals detailing the specifics of how employees should get the job done. “I believe that when you hire the right people and you give them the freedom to do their job, they’re going to make the right decisions,” he said. This doesn’t mean that some procedural items aren’t documented, however at Safeguard, individual departments and their managers are given the freedom to develop their own criteria on how they want things done—and sometimes this is well documented, in other cases, it’s not. “It’s not a company-wide procedure manual saying, ‘this is how you do your job.’ I don’t believe in that. I believe in hiring the right people, training them properly and then monitoring their results.”

While opinions may differ on the value of company manuals that provide detailed guidelines that relate to specific posts within the organization, many agree that employee handbooks are an effective tool for managing employee communications. “It gives that consistency to your employment relationship that helps you steer clear of discrimination lawsuits and things like that,” Stoner said. “It can also help you to establish a positive image as an employer, and an image of one that is fair.”

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