7 Common Employee Handbook Mistakes to Avoid

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on November 12, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

As any in-house attorney knows, a company's employee handbook is much more than a collection of corporate rules, platitudes, and H.R. procedures. Often, courts will treat detailed employee handbooks as establishing binding terms and conditions of employment.

When it comes to disputes with workers, the employee handbook can be one of your most important documents -- or your Achilles' heel. Here are seven mistakes employers often make when putting together an employee handbook and how you can avoid them in yours.

1. Writing in Legalese

While your employee handbook is an important quasi-legal document, it's an even more important human resources tool. The point of the handbook isn't just to protect the company against litigation risks in the future, but to make sure employees understand the company's procedures so that disputes can be avoided in the first place. A handbook's language should be clear, accessible, and focused on practical advice for employees, not legalese.

2. Omitting At-Will Statements

Of course, you would never leave out of the most important parts of the employee handbook: the reminder that employment is at will. Nothing can help you avoid an implied employment contract like a clear, accurate statement that employees can be terminated without cause or notice.

3. Going Into Too Much Detail

Remember that both your employees and you can be bound by the employee handbook. Don't tie yourself down by going into too much detail. Companies can protect themselves by avoiding binding statements such as "in response to a complaint, a manager shall..."

4. Getting the Law Wrong

Your employee handbook goes over medical leave in (not too much) detail. It's perfectly adapted to the requirements of the Family and Medical Leave Act. But it ignores the more stringent leave requirements in California -- or Hawaii, or Wisconsin, or New Jersey. In those states, your handbook will just be wrong on the law, which can lead to complaints and litigation later. We know, employment laws, from medical leave to wage and hour to labor regulations, are a morass -- but thankfully you're the in-house expert trained to make sense of them, and to make sure your handbook gets them right.

5. Pretaliating

Speaking of getting the law wrong, if your policies require that whistleblowers address their concerns to the company first, you could be guilty of illegal "pretaliation." The SEC has started to pursue companies whose confidentiality agreements limit communication with enforcement agencies, so make sure yours doesn't "impede an individual from communicating directly" with regulators.

6. Failing to Get a Signed Acknowledgement

The handbook is only valuable if an employee has access to it, and you need to make sure you get that in writing, should they claim to have never seen it later.

7. Letting It Age

Circumstances change. So do laws. Your employee handbook should be reviewed regularly to make sure that it's up-to-date with legal developments and the needs of the company.

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