Employee Handbooks: Not Worth the Paper They’re Printed On

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untitledI recently came across an Employee Handbook from Disney Studios printed in 1943. The Ropes at Disney’s will probably make you cringe with its blatant sexism and draconian regulations (you need a pass to leave the premises). But if you take into account that this was written Pre-Madmen, and that the Studio had to follow certain regulations because it was involved in “war work”, it’s not a bad publication. It’s only twenty-six pages long, written in plain English, has a sense of humor and fantastic illustrations.

Content aside, I wish all handbooks were written this well.

In 1978, Pine River State Bank distributed an employee handbook to each of its employees. Drafted by the bank president, it was almost entirely based on a sample handbook provided by the American Bankers Association.

In 1980, a loan officer with the bank, Richard Mettille, was fired for poor performance without notice. He sued the bank, claiming the bank did not follow its own disciplinary procedures as laid out in the handbook. The bank argued that Mettille was an at-will employee, and so could be fired at any time without cause. In 1983, a ruling came that was later upheld by the appellate court agreed with Mettille. In essence, the handbook was an employment contract.

Employers across the country started shredding every last copy of their handbook. No handbook, they reasoned, no contract. They were now free to treat employees in an arbitrary manner.

But without handbooks, the employees also had no written rules to follow, and managers had no guide for how to run their areas.

Over time, a compromise was later worked out in most states. Today, an employee handbook is not a contract as long as it includes a disclaimer stating that it is not a contract. Most employers have employees acknowledge this disclaimer with their signature. Only in the legal world is someone required to sign a contract stating that they are not receiving a contract.

After years of writing and rewriting employee handbooks, I’ve come to the conclusion they need to change. Here’s why:

They are Poorly Written
Handbooks are usually written by HR professionals and attorneys. Let’s face it, we aren’t known for our creative writing skills. Most of us like it that way. The purpose of the handbook is not to give you something enjoyable to read before bedtime. They aren’t even written to provide you with valuable information. They are written to protect the organization from a lawsuit in case they have to fire you. Light, fun, easy to read prose takes a back seat to making sure all the legal ‘i’s are dotted and the ‘t’s are crossed.

No One Reads Them
I hope this fact doesn’t come as a shock to those who write long and dry handbooks, but rarely do employees read them cover to cover. In my company, we have an online handbook and an electronic process for signing the acknowledgement. We require this every couple of years from all employees. We can see when someone first opens the acknowledgement and when they sign off on it. Most of them don’t have it open long enough to read the one-page acknowledgement, let alone the entire handbook.

They Don’t Reflect Corporate Culture
I once worked for a company were almost everyone was upbeat and cheerful. The managers fostered a positive environment, and people were committed to working together towards common goals. So I was shocked when I read the Employee Handbook, one of the most negative I had ever seen. It was filled with lists of all the ways you could get fired. It had strict rules about attendance and punctuality in a company which was mainly made up of professionals. In essence, it assumed that everyone was a bad employee which was just the opposite of the atmosphere in the company itself.

They are Bound to Miss Something
If you were to try and cover every issue that could ever arise in your organization, your handbook would be 300 pages long (I’ve actually seen some like this). Every situation is different, so the best a handbook can do is provide general guidelines about how situations should be handled. In the end, however, it is up to leaders to determine how to apply those guidelines.

Putting It in a Handbook doesn’t Make it So
One manager recently had an issue with employees talking over their cubicles in loud voices. This disturbed other employees, some of whom were on the phone with customers. She wanted a specific policy that prohibited talking over cubicles. As if, if I just have a well worded document that states what everyone should do, sew it onto the stars and stripes and run it up the flag pole, they’ll all salute and keep their voices down. We didn’t need a policy. We just needed that manager to talk to the employees, explain why their behavior was inappropriate and request they stop.

They Provide No Legal Protection
As I said, companies create handbooks because they believe they shield them from law suits. The problem is this only works if every manager in an organization follows the handbook to the letter. Not only is this unlikely, but not recommended if you are trying to grow an organization. Strong mid-level management is necessary to success. But if you have a tome full of rules that must be followed, otherwise innovative people will feel their hands are tied. They will be more concerned with following the rules than in doing what’s right. And for what it’s worth, I’ve never had any legal action taken me by an employee for acting in an ethical manner.

So should we dump our handbooks all together? No. When done well, they provide vital information in a way that enforces an organization’s values. Instead, we need to rethink our handbooks and make them true resource for employees.

How we do this? More to follow.

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