What's in Your HR Toolbox?

By Diane McCutcheon, President 

What tools are you using to ensure compliance within your practice?  Whether you have one, one hundred or more employees, developing and establishing human resource (HR) guidelines is necessary in order to protect your legal interests, maintain operational efficiency and hire and maintain valuable employees.

One of the most effective communication tools between employers and employees is an employee handbook.  An employee handbook details the company’s personnel policies and procedures and benefit information.  It also includes federal and state employment law policies that directly affect a company. It is an effective tool for owners/managers to use in managing employees in a fair and equitable manner.  It is also an effective tool for employees, as it explains in detail the rules and regulations under which the company operates.  It can also convey your company’s mission, goals and ethics.  

Although most employers have policies and procedures within their organization, many do not have them written down and/or make them up as they go along.  The problem with this type of HR management is that you can open yourself up to all kinds of legal issues that could in fact hurt you financially.

Legal Compliance is key to protecting the interests of your organization.  Personnel laws protect employees.  With that being said, it is imperative that employers keep employee records up to date.  Documentation is essential should employers have to defend themselves in court.  

In order to keep up to date with legal compliance you can do one or more of the following:

  • Subscribe to personnel law update newsletters
  • Attend personnel law seminars, conferences etc.
  • If you have an employment law attorney – ask him/her to keep you informed of any updates 

When discussing legal compliance, it is important to understand that all employment laws do not apply to all employers.  The size of your company depends on what state and/or federal employment laws will affect you.  For example, there are laws that apply to employers of 1 to 5 employees, 6 to 15 employees, 16 to 20 employees, 21 to 50 employees and over 50 employees.  You need to be sure that you include all the laws that affect your size company and that you add to those laws as your company grows. 

Some of the required and recommended legal policies for employers include:

  • Sexual Harassment
  • Protected Class and EEO Policies
  • Family and Medical Leave Act and Small Necessities Leave Acts
  • Electronic Communications Policy
  • Weapons, Drugs and Alcohol Policies
  • Required Postings  

As a company grows, so does the dynamic of the HR function.  What used to be fine with everyone is not fine anymore.  Questions regarding salary, benefits, hiring, terminations, overtime and much more come up often and are all good reasons for having an effective personnel handbook.  Other advantages of having written policies and procedures include:

  • Employees have a better understanding of what is expected of them during their employment
  • Employees have a useful guideline to use during their employment
  • Management has a useful guideline to manage all employees thereby eliminating confusion as to the company’s position on various issues
  • Management can be flexible in their management decisions yet still maintain consistency and fair practices
  • The employer can establish legal protection 

There are many things to consider when making decisions as to what policies should be included in your handbook in addition to the legal compliance ones.  You will want to include policies that will inform employees of the company’s expectations, their responsibilities, their benefits and general personnel information.  You will also want to write policies that management can use as a tool for making fair and equitable decisions. 

Do not to include policies that should be included in an employee contract.  A good rule of thumb is to ask the question – does this policy benefit all employees?  If not, don’t include it.

When writing policies and procedures for your handbook, be sure to KEEP IT SIMPLE.  Using long sentences, words not common to most people or condescending phrases will defeat your purpose and could open you up to serious personnel issues.  A few tips on writing policies and procedures include:

  • Refer to all employees when writing – avoid using the word “you”
  • Use flexible words such as “in most cases”, “in general”, “by and large”, “most of the time” and “usually”
  • Use words and phases that people are familiar with
  • Keep sentences short and limited to one thought
  • Make sure that when an employee reads the policy they will be able to clearly understand it
  • Be sure your legal statements are up to date
  • Create an employee receipt for employees to sign when they are given the handbook
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep

As you prepare to write a personnel policy and procedure handbook, there are several steps you should take to ensure that you include everything that is necessary to ensure legal compliance and help you communicate effectively with your employees.  Some of the things to consider as you begin to write your handbook include:

  • Look at your current policies and determine what is and is not working, what is missing and what can be done to improve them – then make revisions
  • Check state and federal laws and determine what ones should be included in your handbook
  • Work with your management team to identify what new policies should be considered
  • Research how each policy will be applied and determine if it will work not only for employees, but also for management a tool
  • Create a Table of Contents – this is useful as an outline
  • When your first draft is completed, review it with your management team and again, make sure they can manage with each written policy
  • When the final draft is completed – give it to legal counsel for review
  • When your handbook is ready for distribution, plan a meeting with all employees to review and orient them to the document
  • Have all employees sign and Acknowledgment and Receipt of Handbook form

An employment law attorney should review EVERY handbook.  It is important and worth the expense to ensure that your policies do not violate employee rights and that your policies will hold up in court should that be necessary.  

Additionally, in order to keep your handbook up to date and ensure legal compliance, you should review it yearly. During your reviews determine what policies have been effective and which ones have not.  Make appropriate changes and again – have legal counsel review your changes.  

There are many employers who do not have the time or desire to write their own handbook.  That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t have one it does mean you may have to outsource this project.  There are many human resource consultants, employment attorneys and employment paralegals that can assist you.  
If you decide to outsource, do your homework, get referrals for a good professional to help you.  You will need to be involved in the process as you and your management staff will be the ones making decisions on what to include in the handbook.  You will have to look at your current policies and benefits and make decisions as to what you want to continue with and/or add.  You need to remain involved in the process until your handbook is complete and delivered to the employees.    

Diane McCutcheon, President 
DM Business Management Consulting Services, Inc.
Account Matters – Billing & Collection Services
4 Charlesview Road, Suite 4
Hopedale, MA 01747
P: 508-422-0231  F:  508-422-0234