Top Eight Employee Handbook Mistakes

Vol. 11 No. 8


As you may know, a poorly written, outdated, or inconsistent handbook can hurt your school. In fact, omitting certain language can actually increase your risk of lawsuits or decrease your flexibility to act in the best interests of the school! Knowing that the stakes are high, updating your employee handbook can be a daunting project, especially if you’ve never done it before or if you don’t have any support or guidance to help you along the way. Don’t lose heart—it is an important task! Here are a few common mistakes to avoid as you dive in.

1. Going at it alone. Many HR and Business Managers wait to review their handbooks during the calmer summer months, enabling them to focus with minimal interruption. That is a good strategy. What isn’t a good strategy is revising the handbook yourself and considering it a "done deal". While it may be fine to update certain procedural statements by yourself, the majority of a school’s policies have an impact on the school’s culture and values. Be sure that, once you’ve drafted your revisions, you discuss them in detail with the School Head and Management Team, to ensure that everyone understands the implications of the changes. If not, the changes are likely to be relegated to the status of “gathering dust on a shelf”—or, worse, if implemented, may have negative consequences on your culture if not vetted and understood in advance.

2. Making promises your school will never keep. From time to time, we see schools that have adopted a “form” handbook–including “boilerplate” provisions or procedures that the school doesn’t pay attention to. Be on the look out for disconnects between what you say in writing and what you actually do in real life. If your management personnel don’t intend to enforce certain rules, the rules shouldn’t be included in the handbook. This damages the credibility of the rest of the handbook and can pose significant risks if any provisions of the handbook are questioned in legal claims.

3. Speaking “legalese” instead of “culture.” Your handbook needs to reflect your mission and culture—it doesn’t have to be in formal, legalistic language. While it is important for policy statements to be accurate, they don’t have to be cold or antiseptic. In fact, overly formal language may damage the spirit of the policies you’re trying to convey. Consult with the attorney regarding legal and policy matters—but look to your Marketing and Communications staff to help you communicate your policies in warm and open ways that correspond with your culture and values.

4. Including too many policies and too much detail! Your employee handbook should stick to the policies that most directly impact employees. Keep a separate manual for key administrators that explains procedures in detail, if desired. But, for your faculty and staff, you want to create a handbook that outlines your policies without too much elaboration—as this tends to unduly tie your hands when responding to the unique situations and circumstances that inevitably occur. For example, if your handbook is too specific regarding detailed discipline policies, it gives the impression that the list covers every possible infraction. Much better to convey principles rather than strict and unbending policies.

5. Being inconsistent. Language should be consistent with your school’s other documents (e.g., offer letters, contracts, etc).

6. Mentioning employee probation periods. If your handbook mentions probation periods for certain unacceptable acts, you can actually erase at-will status by implying that once probation ends, the employee can stay indefinitely. It is much safer—and more productive and supportive, in terms of helping new employees embrace the mission, culture, and values of the school–to talk about “orientation periods” in which considerable effort is put forth to bring the new employee into the life of the school.

7. Not adapting your state laws. It’s important that your handbook includes policies and laws that are mandated by your state. Have a lawyer review your handbook before you distribute it. Laws change frequently, and your handbook needs to be compliant with both federal as well as state laws. Example: In several states (including California and Illinois), “use it or lose it” vacation policies are against the law, whereas in most other states, these provisions are fully legal.

8. Overstating at-will disclaimers. In most organizations except for schools, it is important for employees to sign a disclaimer acknowledging that they understand their employment can be terminated at any time. This is known as the “at-will” doctrine. Many private schools, however, choose to offer written contracts to employees (faculty, staff, or both) that actually override at-will statutes (i.e., the teachers at your school might not be governed by at-will provisions at all). Be sure to review this with your attorney and know whether at-will applies at your school, and to whom. You don’t want to overstate this in your handbook and have to backtrack at a later date.

Additional ISM resources of interest
Private School News Vol. 9 No. 7 Employee Handbook Fixes You Can Make in a Jiffy (and Those That You Shouldn’t)
Private School News Vol. 8 No. 6 Your Summer Homework: Guidelines to Creating a Great Employee Handbook
ISM Monthly Update for Business Managers Vol. 8 No. 8 What You Need to Know About Body Art Policies
ISM recorded Webinar Six Key Policies for Your Employee Handbook
ISM recorded Webinar The Complete Employee Handbook Webinar Series

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