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Handbook Essentials to Protect Your Business

01/18/2023 Jennifer Kramer

Unfortunately, the task of preparing the content of an employee handbook generally falls to someone who lacks strong writing skills. After all, executives, managers and supervisors usually aren’t hired because of their professional writing skills.

However, it is essential that the content in an employee handbook clearly informs employees of the employer’s goals. If the content is not clear, concise, and exact, employees can pick up inaccurate perceptions and misinterpretations which can lead to time-wasting conflicts with management and legal issues.

So, for individuals who write policy memos and policy language for the employee handbook, here are 11 basic guidelines to follow:

  1. Know exactlywhat it is you want to convey to your employees, before you begin writing a policy or policies. This helps prevent muddled communication which only confuses employees.
  2. Use plain, simple verbiage in your writing. In other words, don’t write policy language using advanced reading level language.
  3. Replace legal terms with common, everyday words, whenever possible. When you must use a legal term or phrase (such as “employment-at-will”) be sure the context language defines the word or phrase in terms the employee can understand.
  4. Don’t use insignificant words or words which confuse or misrepresent what you intend. An example is referring to “regularemployees” who are entitled to certain benefits. What is a regular employee?
  5. Define essential terms. Rather than referring to “regularemployees” who are entitled to certain benefits, for example, refer to “full-time employees.” Then be sure to define “full-time.”
  6. Use examples to explain complex topics or unusual scenarios. For example, write out an example of how a vacation formula works in a real situation.
  7. Personalize policy content. For example, don’t refer to “The Company.” Instead, refer to “Your Employer,” or use the actual name of the employer. Refer to employees as “you” and “your.”
  8. Don’t use excess verbiage to soften the real intent of a policy or statement or to cloud the message.

An example of such verbiage: “It is the goal of XYZ Company to assure all employees the very finest working conditions and opportunities for advancement. We at XYZ Company pride ourselves with always going the extra mile to make sure our employees enjoy their work and achieve their highest potential. However, if you reject this intent of good will and engage in behavior that is counter to the best interests of XYZ Company you will be terminated.” In this example, the purpose is to say the employer will terminate employees who behave in ways harmful to the company. But the excess verbiage is intended to soften the harsh message. So, the verbiage hides the essential message under a pile of meaningless — and potentially dangerous — verbosity.

The above example is dangerous because this kind of gratuitous language can cause an employee to believe the employer is making a promise of unlimited opportunities for advancement in position and pay.

  1. Use all the words you need to say exactly what you mean. Unfortunately, some policies are nearly impossible to write in simple language. Some are impossible to keep short. For example, a harassment and discrimination policy must contain at least 11 essential elements – and certain statements must be contained in this policy – for an employer to have a strong defense against charges of illegal harassment and discrimination.
  2. Use inclusive language. Do not use only male pronouns when you refer to officers, managers, supervisors and employees. Use such words and phrases as “he or she,” “he and she,” they, them, and their.
  3. Always have employee handbook policy language reviewed by a human resources professional or an attorney familiar with employment law before issuing the communication to employees.

For assistance ensuring your employee handbook protects your business, contact VonLehman’s HR Consulting team at hrconsulting@vlcpa.com or 800.887.0437

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