“I know lets write a policy about that and put it in the staff handbook then when it happens again we will know what to do”

As part of our service we review our client’s employment documents. Most of the time they don’t have much and we have to create statements of main terms and conditions so that they comply with the Employment Rights Act 1996. However occasionally we are asked to look at a handbook that someone has written for them.

In my view the main problem with these documents is that the person writing them is not clear exactly what they are meant to achieve. They seem to include the following:

i)                    Some vague high minded purpose as to the values of the company (often from a template so any resemblance between the statement and the company is purely accidental!).

ii)                   A series of longwinded policies that reiterate statutory rules (such as a policy on flexible working I saw that was out of date when I read it because the law had changed).

iii)                 A set of guidelines for managers (for example a document setting out how to handle a disciplinary hearing which included an instruction to managers to seek legal advice before talking any disciplinary action.  This had become a contractual obligation to the employee by virtue of its inclusion in the handbook. I think it was written by a solicitor).

iv)                 Some helpful advice to employees about how to go about things such as booking holidays and requesting time off for ante natal appointments.

v)                  Lengthy and very worthy policies on such issues as bullying and equality that go into incredible detail about the principles involved but neglect to mention that discrimination is bad and bullying is not allowed. In addition they list a highly prescriptive set of actions that management will take and thus remove the ability of managers to take the most appropriate action in the circumstances.

The problem with all these policies is that they detract from the useful stuff that is in the there.

These handbooks often run into 40 or 50 pages (although in one instance I saw one that was 150 pages long for an organisation with 25 staff), and are almost universally ignored by the workforce until something goes wrong. At which point they become an excellent tool to stop management doing anything because the rules are so complicated.

So if you want to have a handbook just follow some simple rules:

i)                    Only include stuff that the employee needs to know.

Such as guidance on how they should behave towards their employer, how they should behave towards their fellow employees, and how they should behave towards your customers or clients and what will happen if they ignore that guidance.

ii)                   Do not try to reiterate statutory rules.

That way you don’t have to update it every time some politician has a “bright” idea

iii)                 Don’t automatically introduce new policies on how to deal with situations as they arise.

It’s often better to train your managers to deal with things rather than insist that they follow a set of guidelines that have been written by someone who has never managed staff in their life.

iv)                 Keep it short!

There are a few other consequences of having a lengthy handbook. The longer the document the more likely it is to be internally contradictory and, if it is not kept up to date, it becomes irrelevant. If you have to present it to an employment tribunal you have to explain why some rules are no longer enforced and others are absolutely vital to the organisation (always a fascinating debate with a judge!).

However by far the most dangerous effect of one of these handbooks is that they replace management initiative with a blind reliance on a set of rules without thinking whether they are appropriate in the circumstances.

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