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Putting employee handbooks in their proper organizational context

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Does your organization have an employee handbook?  Are you thinking about creating one?  Do employees and managers have questions or conflicting beliefs about your current handbook?  The following overview discusses what an employee handbook is not, highlights the key purpose of an effective handbook and outlines some tips for effective employee handbooks.

An employee handbook is not a replacement for a good employment contract

Some employers and employees mistakenly believe that the provision of a new Employee Handbook and a signed acknowledgement form is akin to a new employee-employer contract or agreement.  This has proven not to be the case in multiple court cases.  Providing an employee handbook to your existing employees usually lacks the contract law “basics” of offer/acceptance, consideration, and intention.  Employers should realize that for the most part, employee handbooks are not enforceable in the same manner as an employment contract. See this First Reference article about handbook enforceability.

Some employers will write and attach the employee handbook into the employment contract for new employees.  This would be an example of an employee handbook with a better chance of being enforced – but employer beware, this would not extend to any updates to the handbook.

Many organizations consider it a best practice to include a disclaimer with your employee handbook that states, for example:  “This handbook is not a contract or a guarantee of employment and does not change the long-standing right of either party to terminate the employment relationship with or without cause” or “none of the statements or policies contained in this handbook should be construed as a contract.”

Statements like this help the employee and the employer use the handbook for its proper purposes rather than as a substitute for clearly written and enforceable employment contracts.

An employee handbook is not a substitute or an alternative to a policy and procedure manual

Have you seen or read your organizations operation manual or policy and procedure manual?  Depending on the organization, these are massive, detailed, regulatory, legal and procedural virtual encyclopedias of every aspect of your organization.

Organizations need these detailed policies and procedures to guide the organization in consistent and compliant practices specific to the organization, the industry and regulatory requirements.  The policy and procedure manual (sometimes also called an operations manual) functions as a tool for managers and supervisors and usually provides a reference to any regulatory requirements. The operations manual should be located in an accessible location or on the company intranet.  All employees (or at a minimum managers and supervisors) should have access to this document – but it is not a document that all employees will read.  For an example of a human resources policy and procedure manual see the print and electronic version of Human Resources PolicyPro available from First Reference.


HR PolicyPro

If you create an employee handbook without having a policy and procedure manual, your employee handbook will be too cumbersome and legalistic.  If you create a quick and easy to read employee handbook with no operations manual as a back-up – you risk inconsistent application and understanding of the material in the employee handbook.

The purpose of effective employee handbooks

The best employee handbooks are provided for informational purposes.  They should provide employees with clearly written, well organized and generalized summaries of the organizational materials such as:  organizational mission, vision and values, the operations manual, employment policies, vacation policies, hours of work, regulatory policies, employee benefits and much more.  But not too much more because you want employees to read the whole handbook from cover to cover!

Checklist for effective employee handbook implementation

  • Employee handbook is consistent in tone with the mission, vision and values that your organization wants to convey to all staff and all customers.
  • Policies referenced in employee handbook are compliant and updated to current legislation.
  • Policies referenced in employee handbook are congruent with operations manual or policies and procedures manual.
  • Employee handbook is clearly written and well organized.
  • Employee handbook is concise.
  • Employee handbook  is updated on a regular basis and old versions are replaced.
  • Handbook is available to all employees onsite and online.
  • All employees have been given a copy of the employee handbook and acknowledgement forms for handbook are kept on file.
  • Meetings held with employees to provide opportunity for feedback and questions regarding the handbook.
  • Process for updating changes to handbook is in place and communicated with employees.

Last words

Finally, please remember, your employee handbook exists for your employees as much as it does for your organization.   A clear and straightforward employee handbook is a great tool to demonstrate your organizations consistency, fairness and transparency to the whole team.  It is well worth taking the time to create your employee handbook internally in order to create your team’s unique “playbook” to get everyone onside and working together.

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Marcia Scheffler

Human Resources Generalist at Wawel Villa
Marcia Scheffler, M.A., CHRP Candidate is a Human Resources Generalist with M.A. working full-time as a Senior HR Officer. She is interested in the intersection of human resources theory and current best practices in HR. Read more
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