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Set the rules

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An employee handbook prevents misunderstanding, protects companies from legal implications and gives companies a foundation to build a stronger company culture.

Kristen Hampshire | August 17, 2012

A game plan sets the strategy – and without one, players can lose focus and stray from the team. When policies are left up to the interpretation of employees, keeping score is tough because the lack of boundaries can cause internal disputes and a culture clash.

Say a crew member is taking more than his fair share of personal days. He needs this Friday off for a family obligation, last week he was out sick two days, and he’s already hinting about a long weekend he wants to take. Without an employee handbook that directly spells out company attendance and other policies, what grounds does a manager have to enforce the rules?

Besides, there are legal implications if an employer does not provide information on required employment laws – harassment, confidentiality, equal opportunity employment, etc.

An employee handbook protects a company and helps create a structure that allows managers to make effective decisions. It ensures that employees and management are on the same page.

Lawn & Landscape spoke with three firms who shared the key components of their employee manuals and how these documents serve their organizations.

 

Getting it on paper

Eliminating inconsistency is a complicated task. That’s because it means creating tight processes that employees understand – it means training to those processes and measuring the quality of the work performed. To accomplish this, Fred Peratt realized his company needed an employee manual.

“We had what we thought was a training program and a set of procedures, but until you sit down and evaluate that…” says Peratt, president of Environmental Enhancements in Sterling, Va. “We realized we had inconsistencies with each position because we didn’t have those job descriptions written down on paper. One guy wanted to do the job this way, another wanted to do it another way.”

Peratt consulted with a business adviser who helped him and managers identify what systems were necessary, and which policies and procedures needed to be put in place. They reviewed other companies’ policies from inside and outside of the industry. They borrowed some concepts while creating their own. And they infused the document with the company culture by including mission and vision statements.

But where to start? Setting goals helped Peratt and his team of managers determine a personnel structure that would support future growth and help the business reach its objectives. “We determined based on our structure and where we wanted to be over the next four years and the revenue we wanted to make, and we coordinated that structure into job descriptions,” he says.

Job descriptions were created for every role in the company, and every level within those roles (such as levels 1, 2 and 3 for crew members, etc.). From there, leadership decided what expectations were associated with each position in terms of quality, attendance, safety and overall job performance.

Based on those particulars, a performance evaluation process was established and written into the manual. “We want more of an accountability record with employees on quality ratings on their jobs, safety records, attendance and training required to advance to the next level,” Peratt says of some current adjustments he’s making to the manual. It’s a constant work-in-progress – and the first version took a good year and a half to assemble. That’s because Peratt involved leadership including the directors of design, marketing and IPM. Six managers helped create the initial document. “Because key management was involved in the process they knew what was coming, and that was important,” he says.

“If you were to just throw a manual at them and say, ‘Here is what I developed, now implement it,’ that wouldn’t have worked. There needs to be buy-in and people who understand the processes because it’s difficult to communicate and implement.” Also, the manual was translated to Spanish, adding another tedious yet critical process to the project. Peratt rolled out the manual in pieces and managers train their teams on a continuous basis.

“We break it down into little steps like a stairway,” he compares. “We work through one module at a time and then move to the next step.”
 



A manual for growth

When Stay Green grew out of its mom-and-pop phase well over a decade ago, the managers of the San Clarita, Calif.-based business recognized that the business needed to start putting policies on paper. “We didn’t have anything in place at the time, and we needed something in writing so any question could be answered by a piece of paper – and also to protect the company,” says Jorge Donapetry, director of HR at Stay Green.

Setting expectations for employees was the goal, and the result is a company manual that is revised annually so it remains a relevant and effective working document. The initial effort took a few months, and the first edition of Stay Green’s employee manual contained all of the basics: federal laws including employee protections, confidentiality and harassment mandates, plus information on company dress code, use of company property, attendance and general conduct.

Over time, the manual has evolved to include a cell phone policy and social media use guidelines that set boundaries for Internet use on the job and define what’s appropriate to post about Stay Green off-hours.

Every time the manual is updated, the new pages are distributed to employees along with an acknowledgement form for them to sign – a similar form is the last page of the manual itself. “I think sometimes, you can have a bit of resistance,” says Stephanie Vasquez, controller, about rolling out regulations in any form. “People in general are resistant to change. We try to make sure our employees understand why we make changes and it’s an ongoing thing.”

Work-life balance is an important value at Stay Green, and this is illustrated throughout the manual by the types of employee perks that are outlined. Some positions have an option to work from home. “There are other things that would attract a person to work for us,” Vasquez says, adding that a manual can also serve as a recruiting tool.

The handbook also includes a run-down of employee benefits, performance programs and rewards for employees who go above and beyond the job descriptions outlined in those pages. “When you think about an employee handbook you’re thinking about laws and procedures – it can be easy to forget about the fun stuff,” Vasquez says.

What makes Stay Green’s manual so effective is its plain-and-simple language and Spanish translation. “Put the document in simple terms that anyone can read – not in language that an attorney would write,” Donapetry says.

Employees understand what they are reading, what Stay Green expects of them and the benefits they will receive by fulfilling the duties outlined in the book. “The more you grow, the more you need that structure because it can be chaotic and it’s difficult to provide good service and quality,” Vasquez says. “The employee manual is the basis for that.”
 



Setting Expectations

“Misunderstanding kills company culture,” says Bill Schnetz, president of Schnetz Landscape in Escondido, Calif. And when your company grows to the point where you’re not in constant contact with employees each and every day, an employee manual becomes a critical management tool to ensure that expectations are understood.

Because if there isn’t a clear definition of what is expected, employees can be left scratching their heads every day.

“The real crux of a handbook is building a company culture where the employees feel they are part of something and they don’t feel like thy are being undermined by employers who change the game all the time,” Schnetz says. “That upsets employees more than anything.”

With a solid operating/employee handbook in place, owners and managers have a foundation for making decisions that affect performance, quality and standards.

Plus, an employee manual should include the necessary legal components required by the state, Schnetz adds.

“There is information you are required by law to provide to employees,” he says.

“The last thing you need when you are starved for cash flow and looking for work is for an employee to take you to court over some silly thing. An employee manual will help protect your business.”

Schnetz rolled out the first company manual in 2002, and his company relied on employer associations, which provided an infrastructure for the handbook. Green industry associations such as PLANET are also a great resource, he adds.

“Start-up companies, in particular, don’t have the time to invest in building these from scratch, so I recommend buying forms then adjusting them to your needs,” he says, adding that online companies offer this, as do consultants who specialize in HR or creating forms for businesses.

The standard forms were customized and the handbook was revamped again in 2008 with a section on technology and information security.

The core components of Schnetz’s handbook include: policies and procedures, necessary legal components, employment status records and performance evaluations, benefits, holidays and days off, workers compensation, time-keeping and payroll, attendance, employee conduct and discipline, and technology.

The guide not only sets expectations, but shows employees how they can progress and earn more responsibility in the firm if they succeed.

“Ambitious employees are looking for a company that shows them a career path,” Schnetz says, adding that the performance evaluation section is particularly important for this.

“They want to see how they are going to be judged and evaluated before they are willing to to give you their heart and soul.”

Meanwhile, the employee benefit section of the handbook shows that the company wants to take care of its quality workers.

“We want to make sure they are healthy and we want them to know if something does happen to them, we will take care of them medically,” Schnetz says.

As far as setting the game rules, the attendance and disciplinary components allow managers to enforce policies without getting personal. “It’s the manual managing them, not us personally managing them,” Schnetz says.

“If employee issues come up and you haven’t developed a company culture by educating employees on what you expect,” he says, “it is difficult to manage your people and the culture of the company starts to disintegrate.”


 

The author is a frequent contributor to Lawn & Landscape.

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