Why It’s Important to Update Your Employee Handbook and How To Do It

If you ever thought having an employee handbook is unnecessary, think again.

A well-formulated employee handbook is one of the most essential documents for your business.  This important tool serves many purposes, from introducing the culture of your organization to communicating expectations and policies. It also helps create a legal buffer zone between your company and potential employment-related lawsuits. It should be the foundational reference document for any organization.

With the only constant being change, the contents of an employee handbook can quickly become out dated, misleading or ambiguous. These factors can quickly open your company up to a high level of risk. For these reasons, employee handbooks should be reviewed carefully and updated regularly. While there’s no standardized format for them, best practices include assessing any important changes to company policies and procedures; incorporating recent changes to state, federal or international employment laws; and making updates that reflect changes to employee benefits.

How should you go about updating your employee handbook? We’ve outlined five general steps in the process.

1. If you don’t have one, create one.

While you’re not legally required to create an employee handbook, having written policies and procedures is an HR best practice. Not only does this inform your employees about your company’s expectations, work rules and culture, it also affords a level of protection against employee litigation.

While all employee handbooks differ, here are some of the most common sections that should be included.

  • Handbook disclaimer: Explains that the handbook is not an employment contract
  • Company profile: Includes vision statements, mission, goals and company culture
  • EEO Policies: Details protected employee characteristics
  • New employee orientation: Important basic information for new employees
  • Safety guidelines: Essential for businesses where health and safety is a common concern
  • Employee classifications and other employment-related policies: Includes topics related to scheduling, full/part-time status, expected work hours, etc.
  • Benefits: Includes leave policies, paid time off, retirement, health insurance, etc.
  • Code of conduct: Covers expected behavior toward others, technology use policies, social media rules, harassment, anti-discrimination, etc.
  • Disciplinary policies: How the company responds to conduct violations or other disciplinary issues, including termination procedures
  • Policies driven by current, relevant, societal issues: Emergency preparedness plans, disease management and vaccination policies, telework, etc.
  • Performance reviews: Details how performance is assessed and at what intervals
  • Acknowledgment of receipt: Physical or digital signature verifying the employee has received and understands the handbook and its contents

 2. Review your handbook annually, and Identify necessary changes for existing sections and information to be added.

Review your employee handbook each year for any necessary updates. These could be based on changes to company policies, procedures, philosophy, organizational structure, etc. Consider both recent changes and forecasted changes that will take effect once the updated version is distributed to employees.

While reviewing, pay attention to the following:

  • Language that could turn the handbook into an implied contract
  • Language that could include unintended legal obligations for the employer or employee
  • Existing local, state and federal laws governing your company’s employment practices and policies
  • Language verifying how your company maintains and follows its policies and legal requirements
  • Your company’s organizational structure
  • Issues with disclaimers or lack thereof (for example, at-will provisions and the employers’ right to update the handbook at any time)
  • Policies and procedures covering a multitude of areas, such as equal opportunity employment, anti-discrimination, harassment, wage policies and employee conduct
  • Benefits and compensation policies
  • Other issues with language throughout the document, such as ambiguous statements, misleading statements, or sections that don’t reflect actual company policies and procedures

You might also find the need to add new sections to your employee handbook. Let’s say you’ve never addressed tattoos and piercings, but they’ve become more commonplace amongst your employee population. You may want to include new language specifying permissible tattoo and piercing locations, content or amounts in your dress code policy.

3. Create and Stick to a Handbook Update Plan

Once the necessary changes are determined, craft a plan of execution. Depending on the updates, this could be a lengthy endeavor—making an organized execution plan essential. There are numerous ways to do this:

  • Use a top-to-bottom approach, updating each section in order.
  • Create a priority list and organize your sectional updates based on higher or lower priority.
  • Assign updates to different departments based on their applicable expertise. For example, you might task your IT department with updating a “Technology Use” section.

Whichever method you choose, establish and stick to a clearly-defined schedule for better (and timelier) results.

4. Bring in outside expertise.

HR consultants are experienced in identifying where a handbook may be lacking. Even if you have internal HR personnel, an outside perspective can ensure your new policies are compliant and will serve you well. They know a thorough employee handbook could be beneficial if an employee sues your company over matters your handbook covers. Conversely, an ambiguously written, misleading and outdated handbook could be the proof that employee needs to win their case.

In addition to your HR consultant, have the company handbook reviewed by legal counsel. Your employee handbook is a legal document, making this a highly recommended step. Although it’s not a contract, courts will treat the employee handbook as a piece of evidence in employment-related lawsuits—even if you have a disclaimer intending to avoid implied contract issues. So ensure the document avoids language that could be used against your company.

5. Send your updated handbook to your employees.

It’s launch time! You finally get to send your employee handbook to employees. Require employees to either digitally or physically sign something to attest they have received and acknowledge its contents.

Send your handbook in both digital and physical formats if possible. Keeping a digital version available on your company’s intranet is an excellent way to guarantee employees always have access to the handbook. It also allows you to easily update the document as necessary.

Depending on the demographics of your company, you may also need to have your employee handbook translated into different languages or produced in an audio or Braille format to meet EEOC requirements for visually impaired workers.

Finally, not all updates to your employee handbook need to be made and sent to employees at the same time. If an update is needed immediately due to pressing legal consequences, make and send it as soon as possible. Other, less urgent updates can be sent later if they’re not ready. Sure, employees may not enjoy signing acknowledgment documents multiple times. But there’s no harm in sending multiple handbook updates to employees.

If you’re not sure when you last reviewed your employee manual—or you don’t have one at all—reach out to James Moore’s HR Consulting team. Whether you’re building a manual from scratch or just making a few tweaks, we’re here to help.

All content provided in this article is for informational purposes only. Matters discussed in this article are subject to change. For up-to-date information on this subject please contact a James Moore professional. James Moore will not be held responsible for any claim, loss, damage or inconvenience caused as a result of any information within these pages or any information accessed through this site.