The employee handbook is a document compiled by an organization that is used to inform employees of rules, regulations, and policies. It is a consistent, formalized way in which organizations can communicate with employees, and it is one of the most important forms of information that the company can provide its employees. Employees can refer to the handbook to answer basic questions throughout their tenure with the organization. Additionally, managers in the organization can use the handbook to help them make uniform and consistent decisions regarding employees. By avoiding arbitrary or uninformed decisions by managers, the company may prevent problems that stem from the unfair or even illegal treatment of employees, such as reduced worker motivation, lower performance, or even litigation.
Orientation is a training program that introduces new employees to the company, their work units, and their particular jobs; it is used to familiarize employees with the organization's rules, policies, and procedures. Often the employee handbook is used as a reference during a company's orientation sessions. The typical elements of both the employee handbook and orientation are described in detail below.
Employee handbooks are likely to include information on the following topics: employee compensation and benefits, performance appraisal procedures, smoking restrictions, drug-testing procedures, leave policies, dress codes, sexual harassment, workplace dating, disciplinary procedures, and safety rules.
An employee handbook should provide information about compensation and benefits, and in particular, fringe benefits. Employees need to know how often they will receive pay-checks and when and if pay raises will be given. Any variable pay (e.g., merit pay or incentive pay) should also be explained, since this pay is dependent upon employee performance. Employees should also be informed about who is eligible for which fringe benefits, what options they have, and when they are allowed to make changes to their benefits package. Additionally, detailed information about the benefits that are available is often included in employee handbooks.
Employee handbooks should inform the employee about the procedure for performance appraisal. In addition to providing details about the instruments and required documentation in general, several questions should be answered. First, when will the appraisals be conducted? Some organizations conduct appraisals annually, and others do so more often (e.g., every six months). Additionally, will appraisals take place on a common date for everyone in a work unit (or company-wide) or are they conducted on the anniversary of an employee's hire date? Second, who will conduct the appraisal? Third, when and how will results be communicated to the employee? That is, will there be an appraisal meeting in which the employee is told the results of the performance appraisal? Fourth, what options are available to employees who disagree with their appraisal? These questions and any other details about the procedure should be addressed in this section of the handbook.
Most organizations have a policy on smoking that indicates whether smoking is allowed in the physical facility, outside of the physical facility (and how far away from the building smokers must be), or outside of work altogether. Any restrictions on smoking should be detailed in the employee handbook. In some organizations, smoking inside or around physical facilities may be hazardous, such as when flammable substances are present. In other organizations, smoking may be prohibited within a building for the comfort of non-smokers. While restrictions on smoking in the workplace are fairly common, some employers are now prohibiting smoking even when employees are not on the job. This is in response to average increased health care costs for smokers and this restriction is legal in some states.
If a company tests its employees for illegal drug use, then the policies and procedures associated with the tests should be included in the employee handbook. The organization should inform employees of the type of test—urinalysis, hair analysis, or blood analysis—and of the specific sample collection procedures. Additionally, the handbook should indicate when tests will be used. Testing may occur before employment begins, or it may occur randomly, for a cause, or after an accident. Finally, details about possible actions associated with positive test results, and procedures to appeal test results, should be provided.
Paid leave—such as sick leave, vacation days, and personal days—requires rules for administration. The employee handbook should detail the number of sick or personal days available to each employee; the reasons for which this leave may be taken; any documentation or verification that may be required to take a sick day; and who to contact in the event of an illness.
Employees must also be informed as to how and when vacations can be scheduled, how the time can be taken (e.g., intermittently or all at once), and whether days not taken in one year are carried over into the next year, or lost, or paid back to the employee in the form of cash. Additionally, the handbook should inform employees about the number of vacation days they have, particularly if the number increases with an employee's tenure.
The handbook should also detail information about who is eligible for unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and what the procedure is for requesting such leave. Some organizations may not be covered by this act because of their size, but for those that are, informing employees of their rights under this law is important. Some employers require that employees exhaust their other paid leave (e.g., sick days and vacation days) before taking FMLA leave, and if this is the case, it should be detailed in the employee handbook.
Many employee handbooks include a dress code that informs employees which type of clothing is appropriate for the office. This is particularly important if an employer has a "casual Friday" policy that allows employees to dress less formally on Fridays. Employees are often confused or unsure as to what is appropriate for casual Friday, so a detailed dress code is important. A dress code should provide specific detailed information about what employees may and may not wear in the workplace. See Exhibit 1 for a sample, casual Friday dress code.
A typical sexual harassment policy includes definitions as to what constitutes sexual harassment, a procedure for reporting claims of sexual harassment within the company, the process the organization follows for investigating a sexual harassment claim, and the penalties for engaging in sexual harassment. First, the policy should explain the two types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile environment. This will help employees to understand which behaviors are acceptable or unacceptable in the workplace. Second, the policy should indicate reporting procedures, or how an employee should go about reporting a claim of sexual harassment. Typically, employees are encouraged to report to their direct supervisor and to present evidence of the alleged harassment. However, the organization should have an exception in the policy for those employees who are being harassed by their supervisor and therefore do not want to report to that person. Third, the details of the investigation of sexual harassment claims should be included in the policy: what evidence is necessary, which parties will be involved, the steps taken to resolve the problem. Finally, the policy should detail the disciplinary procedures for sexual harassment violations as some types of sexual harassment may be punishable by immediate dismissal.
Many organizations are creating workplace dating policies that may restrict personal relationships between employees. Workplace dating has increased dramatically due to a number of factors, including the presence of more women in the workforce, an older average age for first marriage in the U.S., and the longer working hours of many employees. Companies often choose to limit work-place romance because of concerns of favoritism and/or sexual harassment. Despite their legality, many workplace dating policies have come under fire because some employees feel that these policies are an invasion of privacy. Additionally, because some couples may keep their relationship secret while other couples do not, there are concerns that such policies may be enforced inconsistently.
Although professional dress is required at the workplace Monday through Thursday, on Fridays employees may wear more casual clothing. Please follow these guidelines when deciding how to dress on Fridays.
All casual Friday clothing should be clean, unwrinkled, and conservative in nature. Men may wear slacks, khaki pants, or high quality blue jeans. Men's shirts must have a collar, but may be short- or long-sleeved. Men may wear loafers, but may not wear athletic shoes or sandals. As with the professional dress code, men may not wear earrings.
Women may wear slacks, khaki pants, high quality jeans, skirts (high quality denim skirts are acceptable), or dresses. Women may wear sleeveless tops, but may not wear spaghetti straps, halter tops, or strapless tops. Women may wear open-toed shoes, but may not wear flip-flop sandals or athletic shoes.
No employees, male or female, may wear the following items: shorts, athletic clothing (e.g., track pants, sweat pants, sweatshirts), t-shirts, hats, flip-flop sandals, or athletic shoes.
Even on Fridays, clothing should still be office appropriate. It should not be dirty, stained, have tears or holes, or be threadbare. Additionally, clothes should not have unprofessional prints (e.g., animal prints, neon colors) or advertisements on them. Finally, clothing should not be too revealing. Women's skirts must not be too short, and no employee's clothing should be too tightly fitted to their body.
If you are unsure about whether a clothing item is appropriate for this office, please consult with your manager or with a member of the human resources management department before you wear it.
There are many different forms of workplace dating policies; they range in degree of restrictiveness. The least restrictive allows dating between anyone at any level of the organization. A slightly more strict policy would require that, if a relationship is established, a manager must be informed of such a relationship. Some policies allow for dating employees in other work units or at the same level of hierarchy, but prohibit relationships between a supervisor and subordinate. The most restrictive policies prohibit any dating relationships whatsoever between any employees of the company.
The employee handbook should include information about the disciplinary procedures that will be used if work rules are broken. This means that specific work rules will need to be listed, if they are not presented elsewhere in the employee handbook. Then, the company must identify actions that result in immediate termination, such as proof of theft, drug use on the job, quid pro quo sexual harassment, violence toward an employee or customer, or other types of extreme behavior. Additionally, the company must detail the procedures by which it will discipline less severe rule infractions.
Many organizations use progressive discipline, in which harsher punishments are given for each subsequent rule violation. The typical progression of punishments is a verbal warning, a written warning, a short suspension, then termination of employment. Progressive disciplinary procedures allow the employee to change his or her behavior on minor issues before they result in termination; thus, this type of discipline provides appropriate due process for employees. Managers find the prescribed steps of a progressive discipline procedure easy to follow, particularly because they do not have to determine the punishment to give.
One element of a successful disciplinary procedure, which should be documented in the employee handbook, is the right to appeal disciplinary decisions. If an employee feels that he or she has been unfairly disciplined, the organization should have a procedure by which the employee can have others examine the process to make sure that it is free from bias. Two of the most useful procedures for an appeals process are an open-door management policy and the use of an employee relations representative.
Any rules related to safety and security need to be detailed in the employee handbook, not only to inform employees of proper procedures but also to protect the company from liability. This section of the handbook should identify any required safety clothing or equipment, proper use of machinery and other equipment, and any necessary security measures (e.g., locking exterior doors of the building).
There are two major legal concerns associated with the employee handbook: (1) when organizations do not follow their own documented policies and procedures, and (2) a possible implied contract exception to employment-at-will. When an employee handbook details procedures for discipline, for investigation of sexual harassment or other topics on which improper procedures may result in litigation from employees, it is crucial that managers closely follow the handbook procedures. If managers deviate from procedures, they may be susceptible to claims of wrongful discharge or sexual harassment. For instance, if an employee is fired after only one minor rule violation, yet the handbook indicates that the first step with such a violation is a verbal warning, the employee is likely to have a viable claim for wrongful discharge. Similarly, if managers do not follow their own printed policies for the investigation of sexual harassment claims and an employee suffers continued harassment, the organization is likely to be found liable for that harassment. Thus, it is critical that managers be aware of the policies and procedures documented in the employee handbook particularly if there has been a recent change to them.
The second major legal issue associated with employee handbooks is the possibility that they may be seen as implied contracts and thus exempt employees from employment-at-will. Employment-at-will is a common employment agreement that allows employers to release an employee from the organization at any time for any non-discriminatory reason, and allows the employee to quit at any time. Most U.S. workers are at-will employees; those who are not have employment contracts that specify job duties, the length of employment, and possible reasons for termination of employment.
There are three major exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine for which the employer is not legally able to terminate employment at their discretion. One is the implied contract exception in which an employee is led to believe that he or she has an employment contract with the employer and is therefore not an at-will employee. This issue comes into play with the employee handbook because the handbook details specific, possible rule violations and because many employers now ask employees to sign a document indicating that they have read and understand the information provided in the employee handbook. By requiring a signature, the company can indicate at a later date that the employee was aware of certain rules and regulations that they violated, thus protecting the company from employee claims of ignorance. However, while requiring a signature on the employee handbook has become very popular in many organizations, the company must make evident that the signature does not create an employment contract. That is, an employee may perceive their signature to indicate that he or she is no longer an at-will employee and will only be terminated if the rules in the handbook are violated. If the employer does not intend that an employment contract exist, then a statement such as "I understand that I am an at-will employee and can be terminated for any reason at any time" can be useful to protect the employer from claims of wrongful discharge.
Orientation is a training session intended to familiarize an employee with the workplace and its rules. An orientation session typically takes place within the first few working days that an employee is on the job, although it may occur before the job begins. A typical orientation program includes information about the company, the work unit, and other miscellaneous areas. To be effective, the orientation program should provide key information without overwhelming individuals and prepare them for their first work experience with the company. The employee handbook is a key supporting document throughout orientation.
Orientation programs often include information about the company as a whole. This information may be a company overview, such as the origination and history of the company, its mission, and its values. This allows the employee to put the information about the current organization into its historical context.
Policies and procedures (regarding work rules, disciplinary procedures, etc.) should be reviewed in the orientation session so that employees are sure to be aware of them and so that they can ask questions if necessary.
Compensation and benefits should be reviewed, from the basics of when paychecks are issued to more detailed information about incentives and benefits. Many organizations provide detailed information about fringe benefits because new employees often need guidance in understanding their benefits or in selecting from a list of benefit options.
Safety and accident prevention should be addressed in orientation and depending on the type of work done in the company, further safety training programs may also be required. In many office settings, safety regulations are brief and easy to cover. However, in manufacturing settings, a great deal of time may need to be spent on educating employees about safe behaviors and the proper use of equipment. In such circumstances, orientation is likely to provide only an overview of safety issues before further training is offered.
Employee relations information should cover any employee assistance programs or wellness plans. It should also review employee rights, such as the right to appeal disciplinary actions or other managerial decisions related to human resources.
Orientation often includes an overview of the company's physical facilities and may include a tour of those facilities. New employees need to know which entrances and exits to use, how to maintain building security, where to park vehicles, where different work units are located, and even where the restrooms are. Such information will reduce new employees' anxiety and may prevent other problems—having a car towed, leaving an exterior door unlocked, or getting lost in a large building.
In orientation, employees need to know specific information about the particular work unit in which they will be employed. This portion of the orientation may begin with an overview of the departmental functions and continue with information about the new employee's specific job duties and responsibilities, and the performance expectations of that position. Employees should then be told any policies or procedures that may be specific to the work unit. Finally, work unit orientation should include a tour of the department (where offices are, where supplies are kept, etc.), and an introduction to other employees and managers.
Many orientation programs go beyond company and work unit information to provide new employees with details about the community, housing options, or other issues associated with adjusting a new location. This is particularly important if the organization hires employees who relocate from a distance, especially if new employees arrive from overseas.
Both the employee handbook and the orientation session aid the organization in socializing newcomers. Socialization is the process by which new employees learn the values, norms, and necessary behaviors to effectively participate as members of the organization. Socialization may begin even before a person is hired and may continue for weeks or even months after the person is on the job. Formal socialization occurs when employees review the employee handbook and attend new employee orientation. Socialization continues informally through advice from co-workers, the employee's observation of the workplace, and by trial-and-error.
Socialization involves three phases: anticipatory socialization, encounter phase, and settling in. Anticipatory socialization occurs before an individual begins work at an organization. Through interactions with representatives of the company during the recruitment and selection process, the job applicant learns a lot about an organization. The encounter phase of socialization starts when an employee begins the new job, and typically the employee learns a great deal of new information. Regardless of how well-prepared an employee may feel to begin a new job with a new employer, there is likely to be something unexpected or even shocking that occurs when the employee is actually on the job. Finally, when the employee reaches the settling in stage of socialization, he or she begins to feel comfortable with both the job demands and the interpersonal relationships with others in the workplace.
The employee handbook and new employee orientation training are critical elements in preparing employees to be effective members of an organization. Thus, it is important that the handbook and orientation sessions include information that employees need to know about workplace policies and procedures In addition, attention to the stages of newcomer socialization will help managers to ease the difficulties in transition that new employees may face.
SEE ALSO: Employee Assistance Programs ; Employee Benefits ; Employee Compensation ; Employee Evaluation and Performance Appraisals ; Employee Recruitment Planning ; Employee Screening and Selection ; Employment Law and Compliance ; Human Resource Management
Marcia J. Simmering
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