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What You Need to Know About Employee Policy Manuals

An Employee Policy Manual is not a legal agreement. It is a narrative summary of the important rules and regulations of your company. Written in clear language, under straightforward topic headings, a policy manual may describe hours of operation, employment categories, benefit programs, employee conduct, disciplinary procedures and many other topics.

Whether it is a five-page general version or a 38-pager, chock-full of details, a policy manual should be accurate, legally compliant, and consistently implemented.

Most workplace laws require employers to inform employees, however, notice can take the form of postings, handouts, and training in lieu of being included in a policy manual. Material appropriate for policy manuals will likely fall into one of five different categories (see sidebar for more topic areas):

  1. Policies required for all employers. Having even one employee will obligate the business to comply with these rules and regulations. One example is wage law. Federal laws will apply unless individual state laws are more strict. As is the case in California, rules have changed so many times in the last several years, many employees (and managers) are confused. Policy manuals are an opportunity to clarify such issues as how overtime, flextime or make-up time is to be approved, scheduled, and recorded. Meal and rest periods may be explained, as well as pay procedures and attendance recordkeeping.

  2. Policies required based on company size. One example: The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is required for companies with 50 or more employees. If the employer provides a policy manual, the FMLA entitlements and obligations must be included.

  3. Policies required based on the company structure. Employers are not required to provide vacation and sick time, for example. If offered, policy manuals can clarify for employees such issues as benefit accrual, advance notice requirements and caps which may apply (i.e. lawful “no additional accrual” maximums rather than “use it or loose it” caps).

  4. Policies which are industry specific. Safety rules, which may be industry or workplace specific, are often included in policy manuals. A heavy part manufacturer may include a requirement that employees wear steel tipped shoes in its production center and complete required training before operating forklifts.

  5. Policies which are informational or supplemental. Diversity programs are one example of a volunteer effort a company may choose to undertake. Including this information in a policy manual makes the statement that it is important and that the provisions should be read, understood and implemented.

State and federal legislation often contains model policy language which can be used in writing manuals. Policy provisions regarding sexual harassment, racial, age and pregnancy discrimination may be obtained through reproducible government sources.

A limited variety of policy writing software is commercially available and the better programs will offer checklists, pull-down options, references to applicable laws, customized formats, update services, ready-to-use table of contents and indexes, and on-line or intranet versions.

Let the buyer beware — there are overly simplistic policy writing packages on the market and those which contain inaccurate information. Some of the best programs may also present so many policy options that an untrained user may obligate his/her company beyond what is recommended from a risk management standpoint.

A do-it-yourself approach usually requires some assistance by an HR professional and/or legal advisor to answer questions along the way and to approve the final version.

Off the shelf programs should not be a substitute for knowledgeable guidance by a trained professional. Even so, policy-writing programs can reduce costs significantly and leave the company with a policy manual which can be easily modified when changes or legal updates are needed.