The Employee Handbook: 4 Reasons to Put It in Writing

Coil-bound employee handbook

A solid employee handbook can help give SMBs a leg up on both behavioral and legal issues.

Paperwork — both digital and physical — is the backbone of all enterprises. Small and midsize businesses (SMBs), meanwhile, are often regarded as "easier" to manage because they employ fewer staff members and enjoy a less complex infrastructure. The result? Some SMBs don't bother drafting critical documents such as employee handbooks.

Here are four reasons putting pen to paper benefits your business:

1. Let's Be Clear

The single biggest reason to roll out an employee handbook? To make sure everyone is on the same page. Your handbook is the ideal place to lay out organizational expectations for things like workplace conduct, dress code and ethics. Here's why it matters: While employees will typically be amenable to prevailing attitudes regarding how they dress or act at work, seasonal and personal factors can affect their behavior. Putting these guidelines in a handbook can help you avoid some awkward conversations in the future, and can act as a first warning for habitual offenders.

2. Put it in Writing

All employee handbooks should contain detailed non-discrimination and harassment polices. As noted by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), businesses cannot discriminate based on race, gender, age or disability, must pay both genders equally for equal work in the same workplace, and must make this information clear and obvious to employees. It's also important to include specific language about harassment. This policy should detail what is considered harassment, lay out steps employees can take if they have been victimized, and make it clear that reports of harassment will not lead to retaliation.

3. Surf's Up

Your employees are using the Internet both to complete work tasks and for their own benefit. According to Patricia Toth of the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), SMBs need to spell out what's acceptable online and what isn't: "It can be as simple as policies in your employee handbook saying what they can and can't do on the Internet, how to spot a phishing attack, and when to open and not open links and attachments."

Balance is critical here: Policies that are too restrictive may be deemed unlawful, while overly lenient rules may lead to inadvertent data loss. Not sure where your policy falls? According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) your policy cannot be so strict that it prevents employees from discussing wages or working conditions with other staff members. "Reasonable use" is your best bet.

4. Keep it Secret, Keep it Safe

It's also a good idea to roll in a confidentiality policy as part of your handbook. While there's no legal requirement here, it may help save you trouble down the road. Be clear about what information is private, how it must be handled and the steps employees must take to ensure it is protected. Once they've read and understood the confidentiality agreement, have them sign and date the handbook. Fortunately, these documents can all be distributed, signed and tracked electronically. You're also well-served to limit detail where possible.

Consider the problem of one Ohio employer: As noted by HR.BLR, an employee was able to launch a successful legal challenge because the company included salary and health insurance provisions in their handbook, which in the court's eyes was enough to constitute a contract. Your best bet is to leave out specific wage and health care information and opt for more general descriptors — for example, including a salary range or basic overview of health benefits gives you room to move. Specifics put you on the hook.

5. Compliance and Coverage

In many states, specific policies and protections must be put in writing. As noted by Mondaq, for example, the state of California requires handbooks to clearly spell out that all discrimination and harassment policies apply to unpaid interns and volunteers in addition to regular staff. It's also important to cover yourself against claims of "promised" employment by including clear at-will language that allows you or the employee to terminate the working relationship at any time for any lawful reason.

The bottom line is that a solid handbook can help give SMBs a leg up on both behavioral and HR compliance issues.