Employee Handbooks

Features - Human Resources

A good one is helpful, a bad one can be disastrous.

February 21, 2011

There are four pillars that provide fundamental legal protection to a landscape company:  job descriptions for every employee, an administrative policy manual, a sound safety program and a well-written employee handbook. The employee handbook serves numerous purposes: communicating key information across a broad range of topics to all employees, serving as a reference manual to ensure consistency in making administrative decisions, and acting as a preliminary shield to protect the company against potential risk, liability and litigation.

Unfortunately, many landscapers think that all handbooks are alike, and that their organizations are “safe” as long as they have one. That is not the case. A well-designed, tailored, and thorough employee handbook has multiple benefits. By the same token, a haphazard, template-based or out-of-date employee handbook can create more problems than it solves.

This article summarizes basic content that should be included and omitted in an employee handbook, and presents industry-wide best-in-class practices proven to improve its legal utility.

Beneficial Content
At the macro level, to be minimally effective, an employee handbook must contain information on these major categories: company overview, employment issues (e.g., Fair Labor Standards Act exemption, confidentiality, pre-employment process), benefits (e.g., medical, vacations, sick leave), leaves of absence, compensation and timekeeping (e.g., workweek, overtime, travel time), employee conduct, employee safety and acknowledgment statements. Based on the fact that employee handbooks are legal documents, the following essential 16 policies must be interwoven throughout the employee handbook to enhance company protection (See Sweet 16).

Employee handbooks can add other policy statements (e.g., smoking, media contact, housekeeping) based on employer discretion and applicable state laws. Most notably, effective employee handbooks should contain an arbitration agreement that must be signed by all employees.

Problematic Content
Ineffective employee handbooks usually lack some of the content listed above and often contain inappropriate terminology that restricts the employer’s discretion to make flexible decisions.

These problems frequently exist in template handbooks that do not accurately reflect the employer’s best interests. For example, every employee handbook should be sanitized to ensure the following terms do not appear anywhere in the document: permanent, grounds, for cause, guarantee, family, intentional, rights, gross negligence, progressive discipline, due process, employee for life, tenure, continued employment and “you” in the benefits section. Many of those terms undermine the employer’s at-will statements, which severely restricts an employer’s flexibility.

Beyond counter-productive terminology, other problematic content areas include: vague content regarding sexual harassment and/or anti-discrimination reporting procedures, inaccurate FMLA guidelines, misclassifying non-exempt employees as exempt, excluding appropriate state or local laws, failing to list “misconduct” and “unsatisfactory performance” as employee conduct offenses, creating the expectation that there is an employment contract, improper pay practices that violate the Fair Labor Standards Act, and restricting the employer’s range of available disciplinary options.

Best-in-class practices
These best-in-class practices are provided to help landscapers maximize the value of their employee handbook.

  • Professional review. All employee handbooks should be reviewed by a qualified human resources professional or employment lawyer each year.  
  • Annual revision. ­A company’s employee handbook should be revised every year, distributed to every company employee every year and you should have every employee sign the Handbook Acknowledgment Statement.
  • Distribution. Independent contractors and employees from temporary staffing agencies must not receive an employee handbook.
  • Consistency practices. Best-in-class organizations ensure their actual business practices conform to the content found within their employee handbook. 
  • New employee orientation. Best-in-class companies review the employee handbook thoroughly as part of their new employee orientation program.
  • Translation. The rule of thumb is that if 10 percent of a company’s employees speak a different language, the employee handbook should be translated into that language.

Landscape companies must understand that simply having an employee handbook is not enough to fully protect them from employment-related risks.

Landscapers must design their employee handbook carefully according to their operational needs and legal guidelines, make sure their handbook is written so that it works in their favor, get every employee to sign an acknowledgment form, revise the handbook annually and repeat the same process every year.

The author is an industrial psychologist with the Harvest Group, a landscape consulting group. Send your questions to cesare@gie.net.