We've talked before about HR professionals' and lawyers' propensity to overwrite when it comes to employee policies. (See, for example, "A two-word corporate blogging policy.") We make a lot of money writing personnel manuals for clients. But a question we often ask is: "Do you really need one?" While it's understandable and appropriate for an employer to make sure that its employees know what the rules are, a comprehensive employee handbook with Hammurabiesque (admittedly, not a word you see often) edicts on employee conduct can cause more harm than good.
The most common downside to having a personnel handbook is the risk of unintentionally giving up management rights and creating inadvertent employee contracts (as opposed to "advertent" ones?). Caselaw abounds where companies have written handbooks setting out rules for employees to follow only to have a court conclude that the employer is also contractually obligated to follow the handbook. And many courts have held that the lawyerly disclaimer buried in the introduction ("Management reserves the right to blah blah blah ...") doesn't get the company off the hook.
Another problem with handbooks — this one cited less often — is the creation of an impersonal, rigid structure that encourages employees to "game the system." Employees are smart when it comes to getting what they want. If a policy creates a loophole that allows more time off if you call it "personal time" instead of "sick time," you will see a rise in personal-time usage. This is not my being cynical; this is my recognizing that employees, like all humans, are (often) rational actors.
Finally, a thick manual of dos and don'ts sends a message that you don't trust your employees, or that you consider them wayward children. (By the way, why do people think you pluralize the noun "do" with an apostrophe? You don't. Apostrophes make things possessive, not plural.) Some policies are important to spell out, like how vacation accrues. And some policies are legally mandated, like sexual-harassment policies (in many states). But too many policies are the result of HR and legal types hyperlegislating conduct in the workplace. For example, dress codes or bereavement policies that go on for more than a sentence or two. You're better off without this paternalistic nonsense.
For an example of policies run amok, check out the manual of Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University. The thing's so long that the table of contents is a set of hyperlinks. Do not read this while driving or operating heavy machinery. Here is the bereavement policy:
Staff members shall, upon request, be granted up to three (3) days annually of bereavement leave for the death of a parent, spouse, child, brother or sister, grand parents [sic], grand parents-in-law, grandchild, son or daughter-in-law, mother-in law, father-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, step children, children-in-law, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and first and second cousins. Other relationships are excluded unless there is a guardian relationship. Such leave is non-accumulative, and the total amount of bereavement leave will not exceed three days within any fiscal year. If additional days of absences are necessary, employees may request sick or annual leave, after providing an explanation of extenuating circumstances.
What about second cousins once removed? This is what an employee who just lost a loved one should be reading? This is the kind of stuff that gives HR and lawyers a bad name. (By the way, "grand parents" means mothers and fathers who are swell. I think they meant "grandparents.")
Now before my law partners lock me away, I should say that there are situations or workplaces that call for a comprehensive manual. And if a client really feels the need for a handbook, we'll prepare one that protects the client and conveys its wishes without all the silly stuff.
But for the strategic employer who views its workers as its most important asset and wants to promote an atmosphere of professionalism and trust, let me propose the world's shortest employee handbook:
(Now, wait. Before you accuse me of breaking out the zither and the "Kumbayas," hear me out. As I've said many times before, our roles as HR professionals, employment lawyers, and managers all boil down to the notion of showing employees respect. It says here that disgruntled employees are just gruntled employees who have been dissed. (Convenient, huh?) Employees you don't treat with respect are the ones most likely to sue you (see the discussion on firing employees with "retained dignity"). And I'm not making these pronouncements based on a Pollyannaish view of the world. Instead, I'm making these observations based on 13 years of defending employers from lawsuits. End of self-defense bit.)
Think about it: what policies in your typical handbook can't be distilled into the two words "respect others"?
- Policies about harassment and discrimination and office romance are all about respecting coworkers.
- Policies about trade secrets and computer usage and even attendance are all about respecting the company.
- Policies about dealing with customers or answering the phone or about handling complaints are about respecting the customers.
- Even policies about drugs and alcohol are all about respecting yourself.
Employees who follow this Rule Number One (and Only) will be valuable members of your team. Employees who fail to respect others should no longer be, unless you feel they deserve another chance.
Two words. Think of how much paper you'll save.
I know I'm going to take some heat for this, especially from my own office ("Quit telling people not to hire us, you idiot!"). But I'd love to get a discussion going. Bring it on.