The dos and don’ts of creating an employee handbook

Sarah Evans provides some tips and outlines possible pitfalls when providing information about company culture, policies, and procedures to staff 

Although not explicitly required by law, having an employee handbook is something businesses big and small now do almost as a matter of course – and for good reason. Drafted properly, handbooks can form a useful tool in employee relations and represent the culture of your business that you want to inculcate.

We often see handbooks dusted off and proffered in evidence in an employment tribunal to prove how reasonable an employer is. This is great, until we cross-examine managers who have no idea what it all means. And just because the law doesn’t require you to have a handbook, this doesn’t mean that, in the event of a tribunal claim, your handbook won’t come under scrutiny. 

A handbook can be classed as part of the employment contract. If a handbook is expressed to be contractual, it will be treated as though all of its policies were included within the employee’s contract, so the employee will be strictly bound by them. Be careful, though, as this works both ways – if the employer fails to adhere to its own policy, it may be liable for breach of contract, opening the door for constructive dismissal claims.

A non-contractual handbook allows much more flexibility – policies can be altered and changed without requiring employee consent, and to quickly accommodate any change in the law. Your handbook should explicitly state whether it is or is not contractual. Some employers, who are concerned they may leave out a key detail, make their handbook resemble War and Peace. While a longer handbook may be more comprehensive, be careful not to make it inaccessible, or your employees may have a legitimate excuse for not referring to it, and managers may be equally overwhelmed.

What should you include in an employee handbook? 

A handbook should provide a roadmap for employees planning annual or parental leave, reporting sickness, bringing grievances, facing disciplinary procedures, as well as the behavioural standards the company expects, showing them exactly how the company will deal with an issue and what they can expect. There are a host of possible policies, but we would suggest some of the most important are:

  • Health and safety – employers with more than five employees have a statutory duty to create a written statement of health and safety policies and to bring this to the attention of staff.
  • Diversity and equal opportunities – employers can be liable for discrimination against employees (or even prospective employees), so it’s vital to make sure a commitment to equal opportunities is stated clearly in the handbook.
  • Anti-corruption/bribery/tax evasion – employers have a duty to take reasonable prevention procedures in relation to these offences. However, a handbook policy is not a defence on its own, but should be part of your wider strategy.
  • Maternity/paternity/parental/adoption leave – ensure your employees are aware of the different leave options and what they are entitled to.

Employers should also ensure their policies are brought to the attention of employees, including managers, and reinforced with regular training sessions. Feedback from these sessions will help keep your policies relevant if your workplace environment is changing. It is also important for employers to demonstrate just how seriously they take their own policies by enforcing them consistently through the disciplinary procedure. 

Finally, make sure you remember to reflect the recent GDPR changes in your handbook. Any data protection policy you may have had in place before GDPR is now probably out of date, and could leave you exposed should a data breach occur.

When drafted properly, employee handbooks can be a useful go-to tool for everyday queries and serious situations alike. When drafted poorly, handbooks can leave employers exposed when it comes to legal action, so it’s important to get it right. Review your handbook regularly, and if in doubt, seek advice from an employment law professional.

Sarah Evans is a partner in the employment team at JMW Solicitors