A Guide to Employee Handbooks

As an employer, you are responsible for providing staff with a number of HR policies and documents which are usually combined in an employee handbook.

 

Bringing together your company policies in one place is a valuable resource, both for yourself and your employees. Information such as grievance and disciplinary procedures, sickness absence and annual leave is not only convenient for employees to have at hand; it can also prove useful during any potential disputes.

Of course, writing and providing adequate handbooks is not the easiest task, and many employers may not know what information should be included. Careless wording or phrasing can have substantial legal ramifications, and so conducting thorough research is vital if you are planning on writing your handbooks yourself.

 

What is an employee handbook?

An employee handbook is a document that includes company policies and operating procedures, and is usually provided to an employee on their first day to help communicate their rights and responsibilities.

It will establish how the company complies with employment law, the standards it expects from its employees, and how complaints from or about employees will be addressed.

Handbooks do not only have to focus on content relating to employment law. Many employers choose to include mission statements, company values and any information about additional company perks in their handbooks. As this will be one of the first documents your employee is presented with, this sort of information can also be key in communicating a positive message about what sort of work environment they can expect.

Employee handbooks differ in this way from employee contracts, which are specifically targeted at and written for individual employees. Employee handbooks are designed to provide information that is applicable to all employees, regardless of their job role or experience.

 

Are employee handbooks a legal requirement?

Employee handbooks are not a legal requirement on their own. However, it is a legal requirement for employees to be made aware of all company policies, and handbooks are one of the easiest ways to achieve this.

This is why it is important that employees be presented with the handbook as early as possible, so they are able to quickly familiarise themselves with procedures. 

It’s also a useful guide for managers and HR teams, as if they fail to follow correct processes, they could risk claims for unfair dismissal or discrimination.

Complications can arise when disputes occur, or if you as an employee do not follow the process in your policy handbook. In these situations, termination of employment could be grounds for unfair dismissal.

This is especially important if company policies are altered over time. Employee handbooks should be updated accordingly, and employees should be informed of these changes immediately so they are aware of what is expected of them.

Again, while handbooks are not a legal document and are not a legal requirement of the employer, it is always worth having a record of this written information. This is particularly true if you are in need of evidence that your staff have been kept informed of company policies, be they old or new.

 

What should be included in an employee handbook?

Parts of an employee handbook will consist of information that you are legally obliged to pass on, such as specific national employment law policies, whereas others will be down to your discretion. The main aim of an employee handbook is to reflect the values of your company as much as possible, while also including vital information that your staff should be aware of.

 

  • Your company’s history, vision, values and culture

While policies are a vital part of an employee handbook, many modern employees like to get a feeling for the company they are working for. Including company information and a defined ethos in your employee handbook can give a positive impression to new employees, and help to communicate and reinforce your employer brand.

  • General company policies

These will be policies that are enforced on a company-wide basis, and are important but not necessarily legislative. This could include smoking/vaping policies, drug and alcohol policies, work conditions, break times, and flexible working procedures.

  • Health & Safety

Employers with five or more employees are required by law to have a written health & safety policy. Including this policy in your employee handbook can be used in conjunction with health & safety training, empowering your employees to refer to this information whenever they might need it.

  • Anti-discrimination policies

Anti-discrimination policies not only inform employees what standards of behaviour are expected of them, but also help to promote a safe and inclusive workplace.

  • Anti-harassment policies

Policies relating to sexual harassment are ultimately covered by the Equality Act 2010. However, in light of recent high profile cases concerning sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement, including a specific section on this issue can help to make employees feel safer, supported and a valued member of the team.

  • Sickness absence policies

A sickness absence policy is an extremely important aspect of employee management. As well as providing a framework for managing and reporting sickness, it also lays out the rules for investigating any long-term or frequent absences. You may also want to include a policy of Return to Work meetings following any instance of an absence from work.

  • Maternity/Paternity/adoption policies

You should include information on leave an pay entitlements for prospective new parents.

This is particularly important where you provide enhanced benefits, over and above statutory minimums.

  • Leave/holiday

Managing holiday allowances can be tricky, especially if you do not already have a digital HR system to consolidate your data. Including these policies in your employee handbook can make it easy for staff members to refer to whenever they want, and ensures that they are aware of any limitations concerning when leave can be taken.

  • Disciplinary procedures

No employer wishes to have to conduct disciplinary meetings or procedures with their staff. But in the unfortunate event that this does happen, including the disciplinary process in the employee handbook means that staff members will know what to expect and ensures you are consistent in your approach.

  • Grievances

Should an employee wish to report a grievance in the workplace, they should have the knowledge and resources to help them do this. Any grievance  and disciplinary procedure included in your handbook should comply with ACAS guidelines.

  • Communication/IT/Social media policies

Social media is a huge part of our private and professional lives. As a result, many employers have specific social media policies for employees. Misuse of social media has the potential to damage your company’s reputation, as well as work relationships. Outlining clear guidelines and expectations with regards to social media and IT usage is vital, as are the consequences for any misuse. This can include guidance on appropriate language, and refer to your Equality and Diversity policies too.

  • Data Protection policies

Breaching data protection legislation can severely impact your business. When so many of us do business digitally, it is vital that your employees have a clear understanding of what data protection means and how it is enforced.  You also need to provide employees with information on how you store & process their personal data. 

  • Dress code

Depending on your business, you may wish to implement a dress code. Employers should, however, be aware of any potential discrimination when implementing a specific dress code. This means that one gender may not be treated less favourably than another, and that restrictions based on religious clothing may also be grounds for discrimination. It is important you do thorough research before any sort of dress code is implemented. Where you have a dress code policy, it should provide clear guidance on what you expect from employees.

  • Company perks

Including company perks and benefits in your employee handbook is common, but is not a requirement. However, advertising them to staff will give them a positive incentive, potentially boosting morale and productivity. Many employees may not even be aware of all the incentives or perks on offer when they first join a company, making this an ideal format for an introduction.

Employee handbooks come in various formats and lengths, and can include as much or as little as you see fit. The main goal of a handbook is to not miss out any crucial information, while still making it user-friendly enough that your staff will actually read them.

Policies will naturally change over time, and employee handbooks should not be seen as a one-off HR exercise. It is vital that they be regularly checked and updated so they are relevant to current company expectations, and should be reissued to employees so they may be informed of the latest changes.

Handbooks should ideally be used in conjunction with training and development around your policies, but they also provide a resource for employees to refer back to if they have any questions, concerns or grievances. And because your employees are kept informed, it can also help to protect you against any claims later down the line.