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Why have an employee handbook?

I compare an employee handbook to the rule book you are given when you start school. It’s reviewed every year and changes as the school grows or changes. It sets out a fair procedure and process for everyone to follow regarding everything you do. As a pupil, you know where you stand with it. If you break the rules, you will end up in the principal’s office. If you end up in the principal’s office too many times, it may even result in a suspension or expulsion. The principal may bend the rules on occasion, but the rules are the rules for everyone. They are applied fairly, reasonably and equally. Without a rule book, there would be chaos, no clarity, no structure, unfairness, inequality and an unhappy population that is made up of the principal, the board, the parents, the teachers as well as the kids.

Students need to know what is expected of them; how to behave, what they can and cannot say or do. So, too do employees in an organisation of any size. Students like to be treated fairly, impartially and equally. So, too do employees which is the distinct advantage of a rule book or an employee handbook in your business. It can become increasingly difficult for the principal or leader of a business to manage problems properly and correctly as they arise if clear policies are not in place. Favouritism can set in and a fractured culture can appear. In fact, it can take shape very quickly in an organisation or school if a rule book does not exist. Students, parents and employees alike may complain that different rules apply for different pupils or others. The net result is frustration, discomfort and dissatisfaction, parents remove their child from the school or employees leave and/ take action. A rule book is essential to your business as you grow and scale. It protects the employer from mismanaging an issue or failing to comply with the law that can cause significant reputational damage, cost a pretty penny and impact the future success of an organisation.

As an employer, you work in a legal landscape that is ever changing where a lot of complex employment legislation exists. This legislation protects and often cushions employees. If you are not up to speed on it, fail to comply with the law and do not apply fair procedure in your business when managing your employee and/or the issue, you can end up paying out a lot of money. Your rule book or employee handbook helps avoid this, it defines your company process and procedure, how you do things in your business. It puts everyone straight on what you expect and what will happen if they don’t do what they are supposed to. There is a huge cost attached to not putting clear policies in place at all or getting procedure wrong. The law is very pedantic, extremely particular and unforgiving if you make a mistake in how you handle an employee issue or apply a procedure. When you get it wrong, this has been coined by the courts as a flawed process or unfair procedure. You need to know what this means as an employer. Employers have lost many a contentious case and paid out a lot of money based on what might be seen as a minor technicality, such as failing to invite an employee to a meeting, failing to tell them what the meeting is about in advance, failing to outline the consequences of no improvement, not offering an employee the opportunity to respond or the right to representation or appeal in a disciplinary setting. It can even come back to you not acting within a reasonable time frame or not putting a reasonable time frame in place to begin with. These are just a few examples but there is lots more case law out there that confirms this, adds to it and more that favours the employee based on flawed or unfair procedure.

Employees are nowadays very astute and knowledgeable when it comes to their employment rights and legislative entitlements so thread carefully. It not enough to say my employees don’t know that or they wouldn’t do that. It only takes one employee, one mistake. Be warned that employees can take a claim quite easily against you when something is not handled fairly, properly and/or impartially from their standpoint. I have seen too many cases lost by employers because an impartial process was not held, procedures were not properly in place, never explained however followed. I have heard it said by employees they were never told, it was never properly explained to them or no clear policy or process existed. The employer says otherwise but there is no traceability or record of it. Without a fit for purpose handbook that is rolled out properly in your business, you can spend an awful lot of your valuable time and energy on claims that are very taxing, stressful and detract from your future business success.

The handbook is not a mountain you have to climb. It should fit your business, it covers as much or as little as is necessary for your business dependent on what stage it is at. You need to have a good handle on certain aspects of the law and certain best practice guidelines should be adhered to. Don't run away from fear of the law or bury your head in the sand. More specifically, there should be a clear process that is understood by all on how to raise a grievance or deal with a disciplinary issue or manage a bully at work. It should also include rules on your notification of absence procedure, attendance, rest periods, taking annual leave; sick leave, maternity leave, compassionate leave, paternity leave, using social media or personal mobile phones at meetings for example. It can also include information on dress code, GDPR, personal data, training, further education, performance management, IT and such like. Remember too, if it’s not the practice in your business or it’s not how you do things, then it shouldn’t be in your handbook. Don’t put in something that is not yet in place or just for the sake of it.

The handbook is there to protect you and to give clarity to both you and your employees on what the rules are. Once you publish your handbook, share it across your business with every employee, discuss it, document and have a record of it. It should be easily understood by all and help manage everyone’s expectations. It will also allow you to sleep at night without fear of a claim that you cannot win; based on what you might not have said or done or should have said and done in a difficult situation, of which there are many when you are an employer.

I hope you found my article useful. For a confidential consultation, you can contact me on maria@reconnect.ie

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