Employee Handbooks: To Have or Have Not

Deciding whether to Formalize the Various Policies Employed by every Small Business Involves a Balancing of Competing Interests

By Jack Merrill

To write or not to write? That is the question faced by small business owners struggling to manage their employees more efficiently. Should policies be codified into a coherent, written manual and distributed for all to abide, or should employee issues be handled ad hoc, on a need-to-deal basis? It’s an important question, the answer to which has substantive ramifications that employers need to consider before deciding which way to go.

At its base, the policy manual issue presents a dilemma. Creating a handbook can tie the hands of managers while limiting exposure to lawsuits; operating without one can free managers’ hands while exposing them to charges of unfairness or bias. While some policies should always be written – the sexual harassment policy, e.g., and a statement that all workers are employed at-will – deciding whether to write an employment manual requires balancing the pros and cons.

Doing this effectively starts with an understanding of the individual characteristics that affect day-to-day operations. Workforce size, historical dealings with employees, internal management structure, and work site configurations are relevant. If these factors suggest that a policy manual will help, several competing interests should be evaluated before the handbook is drafted or decisions are made about what to include in it.

One issue to consider is whether the company can devote the time and energy needed to carefully draft an effective manual. For some small businesses, there is little to think about here. They have 20 employees or more, and managing them without a manual is difficult. Many employers in this position look to the handbook industry for help getting started. It’s easy to find a template to work from and, though heavy editing is usually necessary, they don’t have to create policies from scratch.

As manual drafting proceeds, the extent to which a written set of rules will tie the company’s hands should be considered. There are several areas to watch out for. For example, setting up a discipline regimen that requires oral and written warnings followed by termination can limit flexibility when more drastic action is necessary. It’s wise to retain counsel to review policies like these to be certain that problem areas are dealt with effectively and applicable state and federal laws are followed.

Once the manual is complete, administration issues will arise. While individual managers can generally enforce policies, there should be a person in charge of interpreting them, making changes as necessary, and deciding disputes. Consistent interpretation is crucial. If the company is too small for a human resources department, it should appoint a manager to work with outside counsel on issues as they arise.