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The Pitfall-Free Employee Handbook Template—Five Tips from an Employment Law Expert

 Because the employee handbook is the framework for employee relations and can protect your company in the courtroom, we recommend companies of all sizes adopt a suitable employee handbook template. We talked with Sheila Gladstone, Labor and Employment Law Practice Group Chair at Austin-based Lloyd Gosselink Attorneys at Law, to get employee handbook guidelines from an expert, and we’re sharing her top five tips here.

Tip #1: Start with an employee handbook template that’s suited to your organization. Don’t just grab a sample of XYZ Corporation’s manual off the Internet and adapt it to your own situation. One size does not fit all; employee handbook guidelines vary with the size of your company. For example, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) applies to employees who meet certain requirements and work for companies that employ 50 or more people within 75 miles of the work site.Resources to help you find the right employee handbook template are available through human resources and industry associations such as the Texas Municipal Human Resources Association (TMHRA), Society for Human Resource Managers (SHRM), Small Business Administration (SBA) or American Management Association (AMA).

Tip # 2: Clarity is key for both language and format. Writing an employee handbook that uses crystal-clear language and an easy-to-navigate format is the key to providing a reference that employees and managers alike can fall back on to understand and administer policies. Clarity is also essential if the employee handbook becomes Exhibit A in a legal action. Otherwise, a contentious employee can accurately state that the policies you seek to uphold are too difficult to comprehend—or even to find.

Policy manuals should be understandable at a 6th grade level. Take out the legalese; communicate plainly and concisely. Don’t sugar-coat your policies; use “will” and “must,” not “may” and “should.” Format the handbook so that employees can look at the table of contents and easily find the information they need. Don’t bury the workplace harassment policy under “Workplace Conduct.”

Tip #3 Give yourself an out. When it comes to workplace behaviors you’d like to prohibit, employees can come up with the darnedest things. Avoid having to itemize each and every potential infraction by prefacing any list of prohibited behaviors with a statement like, “While not intended to list all forms of unacceptable behavior, the following are examples ….” (And be certain you’re not trying to halt employee activity that is protected by law, such as discussing salaries and working conditions.)

Don’t turn a discussion of current benefits in the handbook into promises you don’t want to live with, such as an assurance that the benefits will never change in the future of ongoing employment. A caveat can prevent misunderstandings: “The type and level of benefits offered may change throughout your employment at the company’s discretion.”

Tip # 4: Prove distribution. Employees can’t be held to the standards outlined in the handbook if they’ve never seen it. Obtain proof from each employee that he or she has received the employee handbook. Whether you distribute your policies in the form of a booklet that fits in a field employee’s shirt pocket, in electronic format to be read on a computer or mobile device or as a spiral-bound tome, have employees sign off on their receipt of the manual.

Tip #5: Keep it current. Update your employee handbook at least every two years. From a legal and practical standpoint, employment is a shifting landscape. Does your handbook cover all the policies required by ever-changing employment law? Has your sick leave policy or benefits package changed? If so, it’s time for an update. And when you do revise your handbook, we heartily recommend that you have it reviewed by attorney who specializes in employment law.

If you had to explain to a colleague how to write an employee handbook, what would you add as tip #6?

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