No business is too small to have a personnel policy. Some small businesses consider themselves immune from employee grievance lawsuits — but many companies have found, to their shock and dismay, that they aren’t immune at all. In fact, a small business that prides itself on not having such “bureaucratic trappings” is particularly vulnerable to employee grievance problems.

A personnel policy isn’t a guarantee against such problems, of course. But a written policy forces the employer to make decisions and to regularize personnel matters. It offers a measure of protection for both employer and employee.

The utility of a personnel policy goes beyond simply drawing lines. It’s extremely useful for clarifying expectations, and this, again, is a two-way street. The policy may be directed at the employee, but a good policy also addresses what the employee can expect from the employer.

The starting point
Writing a personnel policy isn’t as difficult as it might sound. After all, many work practices already are in place, if informally.

The first step is to decide who should develop the policy; it’s a good idea to have more than one person involved in the job to avoid personal bias.

At least one employee should be involved as well. The policy will tend to have a better balance of interests if employees are directly involved in formulating it. Even in a business where the relationship between employers and employees is good, introducing a new personnel policy can be tricky.

Unfortunately, some personnel policy manuals tend to dictate “musts” and “must-nots” to employees, resulting in an autocratic instrument that drives a wedge between management and workers. The most effective personnel policies spell out expectations for both sides.

A good personnel policy covers a wide range of questions and decisions. Although working on the policy shouldn’t be a second career, it will take time.

A large chunk of your personnel manual should include a detailed explanation of employment practices at your company:

Hiring practices. Include a statement or two about the business’ non-discrimination policies. There should be no age restrictions, except a legal restriction on the hiring of minors. If the company bars relatives from working together, say so here.

Hours of work. This should include policies on overtime and flextime, breaks, meal breaks and schedules.

Absences. Include provisions for sick leave, jury duty, emergencies, military duty and other absences, including those mandated by the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Vacations, if offered, also should be discussed. Eligibility, “blackout” times and other restrictions, as well as procedures for requesting time off should be included in this section.

Payment method. This includes manner of pay (usually by check or direct deposit), frequency and pay period. Spell out the lag time between a shift worked and payment for that shift. There also should be policies regarding raises.

Benefits. This might include insurance (health, dental, life or disability), profit sharing, credit union, paid uniforms or tuition assistance.

Promotion. Outline eligibility and procedures for promotion.

Discharge. This is a particularly important section. Improper discharge is one of the most common reasons for employee legal action. Having the basis and procedure for discharge spelled out gives some protection on both sides. This section should cover, in detail, the basis for discharge and discipline procedures including warnings, probation period, etc. If any transgressions will result in immediate dismissal (for instance, substance abuse on the job, stealing or using machines/vehicles recklessly), outline your zero-tolerance policy as well.

Practices of severance pay, continuation of benefits and other outplacement provisions also should be included in this section. Be sure to check with an attorney before finalizing these policies.

Voluntary termination of employment. Employees quit; to make the transition less stressful, have in place a procedure for doing so, including a suggested amount of notice (usually two weeks). However, if an employee quits without any notice, you can’t dock the last paycheck; workers must be paid for hours already worked.

Educational opportunities. Provisions or policies for seminars, college classes or outside courses — carpet restoration certification, for example — are found here.

Training and safety
While outside educational opportunities may be perceived by employees as a benefit, required training is a different matter and should have its own section of the handbook.

Try a statement, such as, “In addition to the educational opportunity benefits mentioned above, the company provides frequent training in health and safety issues related to employment. Participation in these is absolutely required.”

Then, outline your safety rules and regulations. This is particularly critical with employees working with chemicals or cleaning materials, working on client’s premises and working with machinery — or almost everyone on a BSC’s payroll.

Too often, businesses simply insert a catch-all statement: “Employees are expected to conduct themselves in a manner that shows regard for the safety and welfare of themselves and others.” This isn’t a bad idea, but more is needed.

First, outline specific training and certification requirements for employment in various positions. The policy needs to address not only the basic operation and safety standards, but Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards as well. In addition, some states may have workplace rules that also apply.

In March, April and May of 2000, Contracting Profits found the cleaning industry was prone to several common OSHA violations. These violations include: Not having a proper written hazard-communication program; lack of proper labeling for containers; failure to train employees adequately about how to protect themselves against harm or damage from hazardous materials; failure to protect employees from bloodborne pathogens; and lack of proper personal protective equipment. Be sure to address these parts of the OSHA standard in your safety policy.

The message in the personnel policy must be clear — the health and well-being of your employees and customers is of primary concern, as is providing a safe working environment. Yet, don’t make OSHA the main focus of your personnel policy.

Other things to include
While employment practices, training and safety are vital for any employee handbook, there are several other useful provisions to include:

History of the business. When the personnel policy also is an employee handbook, it often includes a short paragraph or section on the business itself. Include a list of company officers if that doesn’t change too often.

General practices. This could include the use of tools (including any the worker needs to provide), a company dress code or uniform policy and parking and transportation availability.

Grievance procedures. A “grievance procedure” doesn’t necessarily mean an elaborate system of written complaints, representatives and mediators. To a great extent this is an issue of communication. There must be an effective avenue available to an employee — aside from confronting supervisors — when problems arise.

A suggestion system, regular meetings, periodic reviews and a true open-door policy increase opportunities for communication.

Piecing together the policy
The fact that a committee is writing up the policy or that there is significant employee participation and input doesn’t mean that policy decisions are made by majority rule. The employer still determines many, if not most, of the policies and guidelines.

The policy should be substantive enough to be useful. At the same time, some areas should not be so detailed that the policy quickly becomes dated or obsolete. Rather than spelling out the provisions for health insurance, for example, the personnel policy should give information about the type of policy eligibility requirements, inclusion provisions, and application procedures. Then, it should give clear information (name, location, phone number, e-mail address) about who to contact for further information.

The actual policy doesn’t need to be an elaborate publication. In fact, the result simply could be several sheets of paper stapled together.

The writing should be done by one person, or perhaps by assigning various sections to individuals.Writing as a group rarely works and collaboration can build in an extra step that’s usually troublesome. The writing style should be clear, simple, and straightforward. If several people have contributed to the writing, one person should edit the policy for consistency.

Before declaring the policy “finished,” it’s a good idea to let other people examine the draft and give the committee their reactions. It is especially vital to have an attorney look over the policy to ensure it complies with local and federal regulations.

Mary McVicker is an Illinois-based business writer, and author of Small Business Matters. Her business background includes work with a large accounting firm, family-owned businesses and small businesses of various sizes.