As your business grows, creating and maintaining an employee handbook is an important HR task. It sets the expectations and policies for your team and can be an important liability protection for a business owner. This handbook will need to be updated regularly as the laws change and your business evolves. While there are few sections that must be included in a handbook, employers are at liberty to draft the bulk of the handbook as they like and uniquely tailor it to their business. Here are some simple clauses that can be inserted to set expectations for a smooth and straightforward work environment.

Company Mission and Values: Your employee handbook is often the first document employees read when they’re learning about your business, it sets the tone for your company’s culture. The handbook can show them how they can fit in and contribute to the company’s mission, create a sense of pride in the organization, and help them better understand the full scope of the business. A little thought and creative drafting can make the first portion of the handbook a valuable tool for your employees.

Set Expectations: The employee handbook is where you set the expectations for your business, from attendance policies to dress code, safety, and reporting. It also goes into procedures used to request time off for vacation, who to contact in the event of an unscheduled absence, and who is responsible for handling different concerns. This information becomes the basis of your corporate policies that you may later use to enforce your decisions, so make sure to take time to think through these policies thoroughly.

Explain Legal Benefits: Most employees do not know their legal rights. Many do not even look into those issues until the need arises and by then, it can already be too late. Federal and state laws require employers to provide certain types of leave such as maternity and paternity leave, Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Military Leave, and Jury Service. Outline which of these policies apply to your company and how an employee can use these different options. Additionally, make sure employees know their daily rights such as when they are entitled to meal and rest breaks and the prohibition on working “off the clock.” Direct employees through your handbook on the forms to complete if they have ever missed a break for any reason or their hours on a paystub are not correct. Clear communication helps eliminate confusion on these policies and can save an employer long-term when employees attempt to dispute wages and hours after they are no longer with the company.

Showcase Your Benefits: If you are recruiting talented individuals, you probably offer a benefits package for each employee including vacation time, 401(k), health insurance, retirement, and more. The employee handbook is where you organize this information and communicate how to take advantage of these different programs. However, it is important to include language that none of the benefits are guaranteed and can be changed at any time. This may prevent the handbook from being considered a binding contract obligating the employer to pay these benefits without the ability to change.

Protect You from Liability: While you hope, when hiring someone, that it will be a positive long-term relationship, sometimes businesses face litigation or the threat of litigation from a current or former employee. If the litigation is over a policy that is addressed in your handbook, showing the policy and how you’ve consistently complied with it over the years is one defense you have against their claims. It is important that you review and know the policies contained in your handbook. This handbook and associated policies show that your business exercised “reasonable care” towards employees. Further, signed handbooks, meaning that each employee signs an acknowledgement of receipt and agreement to abide by the handbook and shows that they were given a copy and had the opportunity to review the contents.

Most importantly, the handbook is only as strong as the employer makes it. Make sure that the handbook reads the way you desire because that will increase the likelihood that it will be enforced consistently. Too many employers rely on mass produced, one-size fits all handbooks, without ever taking the time to understand its contents. Most often, employers then ignore those provisions and act as they want. This can lead to significant liability and invite discrimination lawsuits where employees are not treated equally or not as expected.

The policies in employee handbooks should be reviewed regularly to ensure compliance with all state and federal laws, particularly new California laws concerning discrimination, harassment, and parental leave. The employee handbook is a tool for employers and it is only as powerful as each employer makes it. Make sure yours is sharp!