Top 10 Mistakes Companies Make with Employment Policies

The policies in our employee handbook are first and foremost a communication resource.

The handbook is a way to let our people know what’s expected. It should also help limit legal liability by letting people know what’s unacceptable and should ultimately save time because its policies answer basic common questions related to benefits and other issues.

Set up properly, this is what the employee handbook should do.

Handbooks are not meant to be a substitute for good management practices. That’s where I start to see problems and where I see these top 10 mistakes (in no particular order) coming in.

1. One size fits all. I’ve had a number of people call saying, “We’ve been working on our handbook for a while now. We got a template from our benefits broker/the business next door and we’re wondering why it’s not working.”

Well, handbooks can never be one size fits all, that’s why. If you use a template, your handbook probably has irrelevant stuff and is making promises you’re not willing to keep. It should set the right tone for your company and reflect your culture, not the tone and culture of the business down the street.

2. Policies are written in a “do as I say, not as I do” way. Maybe your policies have the best intentions, but management isn’t following them for whatever reason. Should management be following the policy, or should you change the policy? You have to look at this because allowing management to not follow the policies sets the tone for every policy to be short-changed.

3. Having too much in the handbook. This comes down to the fact that we have to keep things simple. We have to relay information about numerous employment laws, but that doesn’t mean we have to quote laws verbatim in the handbook.

Put these laws in terms of everyday practices so people can relate! Get rid of things that say “whereas,” “we endeavor to,” “therefore,” and any other flowery language. Policies should be written in the way people talk, or no one is going to understand them.

The other piece of this is to ask yourself: do you actually need a policy on this topic? If it’s irrelevant for your business or not a problem for you, get it out!

4. Handbook language creates a contract. We don’t want our handbook to create a contract, but I often see businesses allowing language into the handbook that may do just that.

I see things like non-competes and confidentiality agreements in the handbook, but really, those should be a separate part of the employment contract. I often see words like permanent and probationary as well, which create a sense of a contract. Big mistake! Leave ‘em out.

5. Can I bring my gun to work? Ultimately what I mean is that we’ve got to conform to state laws. Most handbooks attempt to address federal law, as they should, but there are obviously nuances in each state— like gun laws and legalized marijuana. We have to be careful to make sure we use phrases like “unless otherwise prohibited by state law.”

6. Failing to successfully navigate the Bermuda triangle. The business Bermuda triangle, as I like to call it, is the interplay between family leave, disability leave, and workers compensation laws. If we’re of appropriate size for the laws to apply, we need to make sure that the language in the handbook effectively establishes our position in complying with each of these regulations. Worker’s comp is a great example of mistake #5, as it’s state driven while family and disability leave are federal laws.

7. Not including privacy issues. In this day and age of so much information at our fingertips, we have to address things like tech issues, computer and internet issues, and primarily the safeguarding of our company information in electronic form.

8. Are you kidding me? This mistake is including policies that cannot be enforced. An example would be a very strictly written progressive discipline policy that says something like “if you do this, then this happens” with a step-by-step approach.

A generalized progressive discipline policy isn’t bad to include, but a very strict one can get you into trouble. What happens when someone commits a cardinal sin that doesn’t warrant a slap on the wrist, but something more like termination?

Other issues I see often in this category are unreasonable personal appearance guidelines and how you handle personal and romantic relationships in the workplace. We have to tread softly in these waters and make sure we don’t handcuff ourselves.

9. Not addressing equipment use. Equipment use includes anything we give employees like phones, tools, uniforms, and laptops. Can employees use company tools on personal time for personal things?

For example, in a recent termination the gentleman had numerous banking apps on his company cell phone. He wanted the company cell phone back to delete his apps, and we said no, it’s a company resource.

Do employees understand the expectations of using company tools and equipment for personal things?

10. Failure to keep the handbook updated and to train our people on its contents. Too often, I’ll get calls from folks who want to look at their handbook. When I ask them when the last time they updated it was, they say “Ten, fifteen years ago.”

That’s crazy! Times change, companies change, technology changes. We have to look at policies every couple of years and employees need to understand their role in supporting the polices and adhering to them. We have to have some type of employee meeting to review the handbook as a whole and address any small changes we may make.

This time of the calendar year is full of top 10 lists. These are the top 10 mistakes organizations make with handbooks, so next month I’ll be addressing the things we have to get into our handbooks.

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