Color in the lines. Don’t talk to strangers. Eat your vegetables. Don’t text and drive. Follow the speed limit. Do not enter. Show up on time. Wear appropriate dress code. Record all hours worked.

You get the idea!

These rules are common in our life and in the workplace. But, if they are so common why do we need signs posted or handbooks printed? Not every county, city, or business have the same rules, guidelines, or laws. If you don’t tell me yours, I don’t know them, and I follow the rules from my last company or “make up my own”. Have you ever scratched your head and asked, “Why would they do that, aren’t they adults?” Yes, they are. But, perhaps they “did that” because you did not tell them what you expect!

Rules are important whether you are 5, 15 or 52. Everyone needs boundaries to understand how to conduct themselves in their environment. Whether you are driving or in the workplace, you need a framework that clearly communicates expectations. A tool that helps communicate this information and protect the company is an employee handbook. A handbook should not be confused with an operation manual; one communicates guidelines and the other communicates “how-to”.

How do you develop a handbook? Here are some options.

Many organizations purchase a template with the goal of filling in the blanks and creating their own handbook. However, writing a handbook starts to slide on the priority list when it is compared to those activities with more immediate bottom line results, i.e. sales building, expense management, or process development.  If you have a designated resource to focus on developing the handbook you will be more successful. If you choose to go this route, ensure that resource understands the specific laws and areas of compliance related to your business.

Some organizations dust off a handbook a leader may have used in a prior company or “borrowed” from a peer company. When you go this route, it is like borrowing a golf club, bicycle, or outfit… it isn’t “you” and usually doesn’t fit.  If you “borrow” a handbook from another organization, have your internal resource take the time to customize and ensure the style reflects your organization voice. Handbooks may be written in a very formal tone and others in a more casual, relaxed style. Don’t confuse your employee! If the company is more casual and the handbook is very rigid, you are sending mixed signals.

The handbook is an extension of your company brand and is typically provided on the first day of employment to set people on the right course of behavior, right from the start. You spend a significant amount of time and money recruiting the best candidates for your company, getting them started on the right foot is essential. The handbook should reflect your values and company voice and is another opportunity to reinforce why you are an employer of choice.

Hire an outside resource to create a handbook for your organization. This is a great alternative! The external resource should already understand the legal and compliance issues that must be included in your handbook and this will save time in development. I know, you are saying “this will cost me”!  The time and money you save using your internal resources to develop the materials will typically pay for the cost of the outside resource to develop the handbook. You can utilize an attorney or human resource professional, but ensure the resource understands the industry, your company, and the challenges you face as well as your values and goals.

Go without. In this business climate, that is not a good idea! Employees need to know your rules and guidelines. A well written handbook can be used as a defense with employee relations  issues, unemployment claims, or EEOC charges. In my experience, the question always asked in an investigation is, ” Did they know what you expected? Where was this written and shared with the employee?”  Imagine the difference when the answer is yes versus no. When the answer is yes, and you can share the handbook with a signed acknowledgement by the employee, the burden shifts to the employee as to why the behavior occurred?

What types of information should be included in an employee handbook?

-Welcome to the Company. This section includes; Mission and Values or Code of Honor, the company’s operating behaviors.
-Employment Policies. This section typically includes; Employment at Will, EEO, Immigration, etc.
-Conduct in the Workplace. This section typically includes; Harassment, Ethics, Violence in the Workplace, etc.
-Workplace Policies. This section typically includes company specific information; Attendance, Dress Code, Social Media, Employee Files, Fraternization, Standards of Conduct, etc.
-Benefits. This section typically includes; Benefit Offerings, 401k, Time Away from Work, etc.
-Safety in the Workplace. This section typically includes; Worker’s Compensation, Safety Information, etc.
–      Receipt of Handbook

Ensure your policies are clear and not open to interpretation. Have others review the policies and handbook to determine if there is ambiguity in your message. Here is a great example!

COLOR IN THE LINES! I flunked Easter Bunny coloring in kindergarten. The teacher gave each of us a picture of the Easter Bunny to color and bring home to our parents. She was very careful to tell us to color in the lines but that was all the direction we received. Open to interpretation?  Perhaps! I completed my picture and all lines were outlined. I very carefully kept the colors in their designated spot. However, instead of a pink and white bunny, I colored mine orange and green. I thought it was beautiful. I showed the picture to my teacher and she took it from me and wrote a big minus sign on top of the paper. She handed it back to me and told me that I had not followed the rules. My artistic future was dashed right before my eyes! I took the picture home and showed my mother and she thought it was beautiful, but became very angry when she saw the grade on top. The next day my mother went to school and told the teacher to never stifle my creativity (or any others) again. If I thought bunnies were polka-dotted…so be it. Yeah, Mom.

Were the rules ambiguous and open to interpretation? Yes. The teacher was not clear in her expectation and we were being judged on a lack of information. Who was responsible for the miscommunication, the teacher or the student? In this instance, it was the teacher.

When a situation occurs with an employee, the first question you must ask yourself is whether the employee clearly understood what was expected of them? If the communication was vague or assumptive you own some responsibility for the outcome. This may be an indication that you need to update or clarify a policy or handbook and ensure more detailed communication and coaching with the employee.

If the answer is yes, the expectations are clearly communicated, bravo and move forward!