Greg Thompson, ActionCoach

The employee handbook plays a critical role in every company. It is an important tool used to effectively communicate information regarding your company’s policies, practices, and employee benefits. Handbooks can also make a clear statement about an organization’s brand and culture, and can serve as a tool to attract, engage and retain top talent. Not only does it set forth guidelines of company expectations for its employees, but it also describes what employees can expect from the company as well.

It is essential for every company to have an employee handbook that is as clear and unambiguous as possible. This will help reduce risk by spelling out what employees can and cannot do, along with the consequences for failing to follow the policies.

When was the last time you updated your employee handbook? Despite its importance in the workplace, many companies rarely update their handbook, which can lead to legal trouble if you are following outdated laws. Your handbook needs to be a living and breathing document, to keep up with the ever changing nature of the workplace and employment laws. As a rule of thumb, organizations should revise their employee handbooks at least once a year. To easily do so, post the handbook on the company Intranet or online resource portal so that employees can easily access the updated document when policies or conditions change.

In Think Like an Owner Academy, attendees learned the importance of having an updated employee handbook, and the legal consequences of failing to do so. For companies in the midst of revising an out-of-date employee handbook, here are five policies that should also be included:

1. Code of business conduct and ethics

One of the reasons employee handbooks need to be updated regularly is to ensure ethics rules remain in sync with changing workplace conditions and new technologies. The employee handbook should outline standards of conduct for all employees, instructing them on appropriate office behavior. Any key local laws or regulations specific to an industry, such as the HIPAA medical privacy rules, should be highlighted.

In addition, the handbook should explain reporting mechanisms, both in-person and anonymously, so that employees can alert managers when they believe an ethics violation has occurred.

Finally, the handbook should instruct employees where to receive comprehensive information about company ethics rules so they can seek guidance when questions arise.

2. Office Internet and social media policies

While many fields of work require Internet access, employee handbooks are often too vague when it comes to defining the appropriate use of company Web resources for personal reasons.

A comprehensive employee handbook instructs employees whether or not they are allowed to use their work computers for personal matters such as checking personal email accounts or social media postings.

The handbook should also highlight social media policies that inform employees about posting information related to their work and the type of information that can be shared.

Because of social media’s growing importance, the handbook may point employees to policies related to interacting with customers via social media. For example, should an organization allow employees to “friend” a client or customer?

Finally, the handbook and supportive policies should instruct employees as to whether they are allowed to download personal applications on their work computers. The manual should explain the mechanisms in place to monitor Internet use. It is also important to notify workers if they are entitled to privacy while using company phones or email.

3. BYOD policies

With the explosive growth of personal cell phone and tablet use in the office, companies should include references to BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policies in the employee handbook. These policies let employees know whether they are allowed to connect personal cell phones and tablets to company Wi-Fi systems and the acceptable reasons for doing so.

The employee handbook should provide clear instructions about company information, if any, that can be stored on personal devices and the safeguards, such as device pass codes, that must be in place to protect data. The handbook should also instruct employees about what to do if their device is lost or what is required when they leave the company.

4. Telecommuting policies 

The current mobile computing revolution, the spread of high-speed Internet, and new secure software solutions allow more and more companies to offer telecommuting as a company perk. Therefore, organizations that allow employees to work remote should include detailed information in their employee policies. They should also summarize those policies in the employee handbook.

The handbook should explain whether telecommuting is allowed for all positions or limited to select positions within the company, along with the necessary approvals required prior to working remotely.

The employee handbook should spell-out any security requirements that must be met in order to telecommute and how time will be tracked for remote work. The handbook should also explain to employees how accessible they should be by phone or email during the agreed-upon work schedule.

It is also important for the employee handbook to remind employees that telecommuting does not work if clients are not well served, if the employee feels isolated from others and cannot complete his or her work, or if the employee’s colleagues are being negatively affected by the telecommuter’s absence from the office. Employees should be reminded that being allowed to work remotely is a privilege but not a right.

5. Disaster preparedness

Having a telecommuting platform and a remote work plan in place is particularly beneficial in case of emergencies large or small. While a weather event may not have long-term consequences, employee absences due to snow or another weather incident can still be costly for a company. A system that allows employees to work remotely may help mitigate the issue.

In addition to logistics issues, the employee handbook should include an overview of the organization’s emergency plans. It should explain the protocols for employees when they are concerned about road safety or face childcare issues due to inclement weather. It should also explain the communications systems employees should use to receive the latest information on company operations.

While the task of updating the employee handbook may seem daunting, it is a critical task that should be conducted on a regular basis. Keeping the handbook up-to-date not only helps reduce risk, but it also better prepares a company for unexpected bumps in the road.

For more tips and best-practices for your employee handbook, and other matters regarding HR and running a business, join Think Like an Owner Academy. Spots are now available for this year-long course aimed to teach key managers and new or current business owners the ins and outs of running a business. If you are interested in attending, visit