Generally, the task of preparing the content of an employee handbook falls to someone who lacks strong writing skills. After all, executives, managers, and supervisors usually aren’t hired because of their professional writing skills.
Yet it is important that the content in an employee handbook clearly informs employees of the employer’s intentions. If the content is not clear, concise and accurate, employees can pick up inaccurate impressions and misunderstandings which can lead to time-wasting conflicts with management and to legal controversy.
So, for persons who write policy memos and policy language for the employee handbook, here are 11 basic guidelines to follow when preparing policy language for your employee handbook:
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1. Know exactly what it is you want to tell your employees before you begin writing a policy or policies. This helps prevent muddled communication which only confuses employees.
2. Use plain, simple English (or whatever language your employees read, such as Spanish) in your writing. In other words, don’t write policy language using college and post-graduate reading level language.
3. Replace legal-sounding words with common, everyday words, whenever possible. When you must use a legal-type word or phrase (such as “employment-at-will”) be sure the context language defines the word or phrase in words the employee can understand.
4. Don’t use meaningless words or words which confuse or misrepresent what you intend. An example is referring to “regular employees” who are entitled to certain benefits. What is a regular employee? (One who is not irregular?)
5. Define essential terms. Rather than referring to “regular employees” who are entitled to certain benefits, for example, refer to “full-time employees.” Then define “full-time.”
6. Use examples to illustrate complex or unusual topics. For example, write out an example of how a vacation formula actually works in a real situation.
7. Personalize policy content. For example, don’t refer to “The Company.” Instead, refer to “Your Employer,” or actually use the name of the employer. Refer to employees as “you” and “your.”
8. Don’t use excess verbiage or visionary verbiage to soften the real intent of a policy or statement or to obfuscate (or muddle) the message.
An example of such verbiage: “It is the goal of XYZ Company to assure all employees the very finest working conditions and opportunities for advancement. We at XYZ Company pride ourselves with always going the extra mile to make sure our employees enjoy their work and achieve their highest potential. However, if you reject this intent of goodwill and engage in behavior that is counter to the best interests of XYZ Company you will be terminated.” In this example, the purpose is to say the employer will terminate employees who behave in ways harmful to the company. But the excess verbiage is intended to soften the harsh message. So the verbiage hides the essential message under a pile of meaningless — and potentially dangerous — verbosity.
And why is the example above dangerous? Because this kind of gratuitous language can cause an employee to believe the employer is making a promise of unlimited opportunities for advancement in position and pay.
9. Use all the words you need to say exactly what you mean. Unfortunately, some policies are nearly impossible to write about in simple language. Some are impossible to keep short. For example, a harassment and discrimination policy must contain at least 11 essential elements — and certain statements must be contained in this policy — for an employer to have a strong defense against charges of illegal harassment and discrimination.
10. Use non-sexist pronouns. Do not use only male pronouns when you refer to officers, managers, supervisors, and employees. Use such words and phrases as “he or she,” “he and she,” they, them, and their.
11. Always have policy language which is inserted in the employee handbook reviewed by a human resources professional or an attorney familiar with employment law before issuing the communication to employees.
Should and Should Nots
What an Employee Handbook SHOULD Include
- An Introduction. An employee handbook should be an introduction to your business or organization for new employees. It’s one of the first impressions of a new workplace environment a new employee gets. So as you prepare policy statements to include in your handbook consider how a stranger will interpret the messages in the written words.
- A Summary. The employee handbook should be a summary of workplace policies and practices.
- A Guidebook. The handbook should be a guidebook for employees, telling them what they can expect from the employer and what the employer expects from them
- A Tool. The handbook should a communication tool.
What an Employee Handbook Should NOT Include
The employee handbook is not a catchall in which the employer can stuff every memo and document relating to employees. It’s not a policies and procedures manual for supervisors spelling out the details of how supervisors must do their jobs. It’s not an operations manual telling employees how to do their jobs. It doesn’t include the employees’ job descriptions. It’s not a union contract. It doesn’t include an affirmative action plan, nor does it include a safety plan (these should be separate documents referred to in the handbook if the employer has such plans).