What an Employer Needs to Know When Creating an Employee Manual

What is an Employee Manual?

  • In Washington State it almost certainly is not a contract or agreement to change the at-will nature of your employment.
  • It is a guide for Employees to understand Company policies.
  • It is a guide for Employers to understand their obligations under the law, and to establish policies and goals in Employee management.

In this blog I discuss common questions and options for an Employer to consider when addressing whether they need a Manual or a change to a Manual.

Why have an Employee Manual at all, why not just show up, act like adults, and get the job done?

The Manual is not there for the times where everything works smoothly. It is there to serve Employers and Employees for the times where things are not working smoothly.

Does my Employee Manual Change my At-Will employment?

No, the Manual probably provides no change to the at-will relationship outside of very narrow exceptions. Those exceptions are most commonly found in collective bargaining agreements, contracts for a specific project, some government positions, or poorly written Manuals that did not intend to change the relationship.

There are common reasons I hear Employees complain about a Manual. Those complaints tend to focus on perceived “promises” of something in the Manual not delivered such as the following:

  • Progressive discipline policies ignored;
  • Lack of enforcement of harassment policies;
  • Deviation from a policy; and
  • Unequal enforcement of a policy.

Employers should carefully look at how they enforce Company policies and do so fairly and equitably. Perceived mistreatment or deviation can lead to a myriad of claims (discrimination, retaliation, wrongful termination etc.) that may disrupt work or raise costs even if unjustified.

What should the Manual contain?

The Manual should be a reflection of policies a Company views as important AND will actually uphold; not a wish list. It should clearly communicate expectations to the Employee. If a Company is not going to enforce a “no-Facebook while at work clause” then why bother stating as much?

An Employer can include almost any policy or procedure into a Manual. Some common topics include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Company specific personnel procedures;
  • Vacation, sick, PTO, scheduling, holiday and other time-away policies;
  • Payment, time keeping, break and overtime policies;
  • How to report harassing behavior;
  • Discipline policy, progressive or otherwise; and
  • General rules of behavior that the Company views as important (attire, computer usage, dating in the work place etc.);

How is a Manual used to assist the Employer?

The Manual should serve as a guide for the Employer to review its best practices in a trying moment. A well written Manual is legally accurate and avoids common pitfalls of enforceability. For instance, a “Time Keeping” section should accurately reflect state and federal wage and hour laws so an Employer may rely on the policy set forth in that section as adhering to state and federal wage and hour laws.

How much detail should a Manual have?

I routinely see Manuals that fall into two broad categories: The “flexible guide”, and the “exhaustive procedural”.

The Flexible Guide: A flexible guide tackles the important topics, but leaves room for an Employer to act as needed. This may create concerns with perceived disparate enforcement of the Manual (treating Employees differently), but allows an Employer to take action without unnecessary bureaucracy. Provisions are typically added and updated to reflect a Company’s growing or changing needs over time.

The Exhaustive Procedural: A robust handbook should be clear about each rule and procedure. There should be no doubt to whom an Employee calls when sick, whether you need a doctor’s note etc. Such precision is often easy to apply equally. However, such a system is not immune to disparate actions by managers or HR professionals even if checklists are followed, and may antagonize Employees with unnecessary red-tape.

Both approaches have pluses and minuses, but I tend to see the exhaustive Manuals at companies with a professional HR staff or that exist in a heavily regulated environment. For a regional, medium, or smaller Company a more flexible handbook is typically preferred as it reduces unnecessary bureaucracy.

When should a Manual be created or revised?

I love the do-it-yourself approach of many Seattle and Puget Sound companies. However, like many other business needs, how a company chooses to direct their employees is not a one-size fits all decision. If the only thought an Employer puts into their employment policies is downloading a Manual off the internet then it probably results in a confusing mess.

Employers decide to create or revise a Manual for many reasons, sometimes prior to personnel problems and sometimes in response. When created prior to a personnel problem drafting a Manual with your attorney can serve as a great educational opportunity to discuss best practices. When created after a personnel problem the discussion can provide comfort to an Employer that they acted, and are acting, appropriately. The educational and advising component of working with a knowledgeable attorney in either situation is valuable.