How to Update Your Employee Handbook

By Jenna Reed, Vice President General Counsel and Compliance Services
Cascade Employers Association

If it’s been more than a year since you’ve given your employee handbook a thorough read, chances are it’s already out of date.

I don’t know too many people that jump up and down about the prospect of updating their employee handbook (except some people on our staff), but here are a few tips to help get you started.

1. Have someone not in HR read through your current version and take notes about what doesn’t make sense to them. When I review an employee handbook I always read it through as a new employee would and take these types of notes. What is confusing? What seems unnecessary? What seems inconsistent? This outside lens can be very helpful in identifying things that you may have become blind to because you’re so familiar with the handbook. That’s one of the reasons we always have more than one person review employee handbooks that our team of experts update for companies.

2. Make a list of policies that you know need updating because of a change in the law. To do this well, make sure you have great resources that keep you updated throughout the year on all of the employment law changes that could impact your handbook policies and practices.

3. Make a list of policies that you know need updating because they’re inconsistent with your current practices. For example, many attendance policies state that employees must call in and speak with their supervisor if they’re going to be late or absent. However, in today’s world I find that most supervisors allow their employees to text or email rather than call in. Whatever you decide, the practice should be consistent with the policy.

4. Make a list of policies that you want to change for another reason. This is a bit of a catchall. Some policies are fully compliant and consistent with practices, but you just don’t like how they read. Maybe it is too heavy-handed or too formal for your culture. Make a note to change it.

5. Throughout the year, make note of any policies that employees or supervisors seem to have confusion about. Some of the more common ones that cause confusion are policies about benefits, time-off and leaves of absence.

6. Make sure all point of contact references are correct. For example, I worked with a small employer with less than 15 employees on updating their handbook. Several policies referred to the “HR department.” I knew they didn’t have an HR department, so we changed those references to specific positions such as the Office Manager or General Manager.

7. Now, you should be ready to start making changes. Use the lists you’ve made and dig in.

8. When you have an updated draft, select a few supervisors to review the new draft to see if there is anything that stands out to them that may need to be revised.

9. Make any final (almost) changes. Now, you’re almost there. Just one more thing to do.

10. Before you re-publish your handbook … ALWAYS have your employee handbook legally reviewed by an employment attorney. Not just any attorney will do. You need one with this specialized knowledge. This type of review is one of the most common things we do for employers and it’s incredibly important. Once this step is completed, your handbook should be republished and redistributed to employees. Make sure you get new acknowledgement sheets for everyone.

A few other helpful points:

1. While there are many sources available for employee handbooks such as models that can be downloaded, or online tools that allow you to develop your own, take caution. Taking a cookie cutter approach can be easy, but it can be dangerous. Every handbook needs to be customized to your specific state, industry, individual practices and company culture. Many online tools don’t account for these things. Trust me, your handbook cannot be fully developed in an hour. Okay – I take that back. You can do it with some online tools, but I’ve yet to review one from a company using an online tool or model that doesn’t need to be customized and revised. Again, this is why #9 above is so important.

2. If you review and update your handbook on an annual basis, it generally shouldn’t take more than an hour or two. Still do #9 on an annual basis, too.

3. Remember, if you make a major change to a policy before your annual update, republish that policy at the time and get a new acknowledgement. For example, if your state has recently adopted statutory paid sick leave, update your policy now rather than waiting until the time of year when you do your annual update.

You still may not be jumping for joy when you start the task of updating your employee handbook, but having a process to follow should help make it a little less overwhelming.

Of course if it is still too overwhelming or you don’t have the time, our team can help you out. Feel free to contact me if you want to chat about your handbook.

article submitted by:
Sheryl Kelsh
Membership Development Manager Cascade Employers Association
Unsurpassed Resources for Great Employers
503.585.4320 (Salem)
503.224.5219 (Portland)

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