How do you typically convey company information to your employees? If you’re like many smaller building service contractors, you rely on a series of memos, e-mails and word-of-mouth. But that piecemeal strategy could put you at risk for worker confusion, improper training or even legal trouble.

To combat that, consider assembling an employee handbook. Handbooks consolidate and place in one single source important information for the benefit of both employees and employers. They give BSCs a tool to explain their policies and programs, satisfy federal and state laws, and alleviate lawsuits resulting from unclear or incomplete policies and inconsistent enforcement.

Table of contents
“Our philosophy is that an employee handbook is a good tool that helps document what our policies and practices are and outlines exactly what is expected of them so that they understand that policies and procedures are administered fairly, and uniformly to everyone,” says Kathy Bullermann, vice president of human relations for CleanPower, a BSC based in Milwaukee. “It conveys what the value and the culture of the company are so that there are no misunderstandings.”

“I think it’s the best practice to supply employees with handbooks,” adds Vic Munger, vice president for human relations at UNICCO, a large integrated facility services provider based in Newton, Mass.”They are guidelines for employment. It sets expectations and provides them with some of the boundaries, workplace rules, policies, and procedures, and it serves to be informational and helpful.”

Every handbook must state the following three things (unless the company is covered by a collective-bargaining agreement or state law that says differently) in order to protect the employer, says Suzanne Samuelson, communications consultant at Mercer HR Consulting in New York:

• “While every attempt has been made to assure that the information is as accurate and as complete as possible, the full details are in the official plant documents and contracts. If the information in the handbook differs from a provision in the applicable document or contract, the document or contract controls.”

• “The company reserves the right to unilaterally, and at any time and at its discretion, amend, supplement, modify, or eliminate, any or all the policies or benefits described.”

• “This handbook does not create a contract or guarantee of employment between the company and any individual.”

But beyond these legal basics, the handbook can cover a variety of information, says Bullerman.

“Our handbook starts off with a an introduction of the history of our company, a mission statement, and company values,” she says. “Next is what an employee can expect from our company (holiday/vacation pay, bonus and length of service programs), safety rules (for equipment, handling trash, exposure to pathogens, and chemicals), first aid information, and what we expect of the employee (attendance, pay, and leave time).

“We spell out our specific policies dealing with harassment, violence in the workplace and situations that if they occur, may lead to immediate termination,” Bullerman adds.

It is important to make sure everyone’s on board and understands the contents of the book, says Don Phin, a consultant and speaker in West Palm Beach, Fla.

“If you really want people to understand a handbook, ask them two months down the road, after they have been working for you and have experienced some of your policies and procedures, ‘do you have any questions about it?’” he says. “Revisit it to make it a live document that really means something — not just a thing someone would sign to get a job.”

Updating information
Revise a handbook when major policy items, such as benefits, employment policies, laws or terminology, change. Name changes of executive or other management personnel should not necessitate changing the contents of a handbook.

“Employee handbooks should be revised when laws are changed, also, when a company makes significant changes, getting into a new line of business, or different rules come into play,” says Bullermann.

But, BSCs don’t need to re-print the book each time something changes, says Michelle Begley, an attorney in the litigation department of Bacon-Wilson, P.C., in Springfield, Mass.

“Changes should be in the form of a written memo outlining what the change is,” she says, “and ask that each employee sign an acknowledgement page indicating that they have received, read, and understood the new policy. That acknowledgement page should be kept in the employees file.”

Ken Fracaro is a freelance writer in Hixson, Tenn.

Keeping It Legal
A well-crafted handbook can keep contractors out of legal trouble. Joseph Lawson, II in his book, How to Develop an Employee Handbook, recommends including several items to avoid wrongful discharge lawsuits. Pre-employment forms should clearly state that employment is at-will (unless it’s covered by a union contract or other agreement); give new employees criteria based on job descriptions and bad appraisals based on them; provide a complaint resolution procedure; and state that termination is to be the end result of progressive corrective discipline.

But, be sure that these procedures are followed. A recent court case, Baril vs. Aiken Regional Medical Center, S.C. App. No. 3561 (10/28/02) dealt with a handbook that detailed a mandatory disciplinary policy and stated, "This booklet does not constitute a contract." The company had fired Ms. Baril. She charged that the pre-determination disciplinary procedure in the employee handbook was not followed. She won the case and an appeals court upheld the verdict.

However, some experts say some legal issues should be handled outside of a handbook. Attorney Michelle Begley recommends in her article, "Creating the Employee Handbook," that non-competition and non-confidentiality agreements and any other contract information be created as a separate document. If included in an employee manual, such agreements could effectively turn the manual into a contract.