Employee Handbooks: Do I Need One and What Should It Say?

I highly recommend that employers use a well-crafted employee handbook to provide clear communication to employees regarding the company policies and practices, rules and regulations, and employee benefits. It is a guide to life at your workplace. Of course, every company has its own unique culture. In addition, you must consider both state and local laws and regulations that affect your business. Therefore, it is best to have an experienced employment attorney work with you in crafting your handbook. If you have sufficient HR resources, you may wish to create the first draft yourself and then have employment counsel review the book before you publish and distribute it. ,

The following are helpful guidelines for developing your employee handbook.

Welcome and Introduction to Your Company

The handbook serves multiple purposes. First, it gives you an opportunity to warmly welcome new employees and to set the tone for their employment experience. A sincere note from your President or CEO should be the first thing the employee reads. The welcome letter may be followed by a mission statement that sets out the company’s view of itself and its place in the world.

Purpose of the Welcome and Handbook Contents

These two sections of the handbook should provide the employee with a reasonably good understanding of the company’s culture and a feel for what it is like to work there. Of course, it is important that the welcome and the mission truly reflect the reality of the company. Providing a warm, glowing welcome and a lofty mission statement for an employee, then having the employee discover that reality is quite the contrary will breed discontent.

Following these introductory pieces, the handbook should contain the following:

Getting Started

This section is a section of essentials. It should cover work hours, dress codes, information on any probationary period, and similar information that an employee should know the first day on the job.

Policies and Practices

Next, the employee should be informed of the “rules of the road.” This section will address guidelines on use of company computers, fax machines, and photocopy machines; smoking policies; drug free workplace provisions; and similar rules that govern the employer’s workplace. Creating your handbook will also provide you an excellent opportunity to consider other company policies such as privacy and rehire policies. All such policies should go into the handbook so employees are informed about them.

Employee Benefits

In the benefits section you can briefly describe employee benefits such as health insurance, 401(k) plans, and the like. We recommend that the details of the plans be set out in an appendix to the handbook and/or a separate booklet.

Employee Leave

Here you can discuss vacation policies, sick leave, and other paid and unpaid leave. You should also address the FMLA leave (and any local variations), military leave, jury duty policies, and all other practices related to leave.

Equal Employment Opportunity

In this section you must set out your sexual harassment policy, any affirmative action policies, and a statement of your compliance with all employment discrimination and related legal requirements. If you are subject to state or federal prohibitions on employment discrimination, this section is essential to help protect you in the event of sexual or other harassment in your workplace by fellow employees and persons not employed by the company.

Discipline and Discharge

Here you may describe a progressive disciplinary policy and other standards related to discipline and discharge.

Dispute Resolution

We highly recommend that you require that any claims by an employee against the company be subject to mediation and arbitration and that the employee waive his or her right to litigate in the courts. This section must be carefully drafted and the acknowledgement must reference it.

Essential Provisions

Your handbook should contain two essential administrative components. First, is a written acknowledgement by the employee that he or she has received the handbook and read it. This form must be signed, submitted to you, and placed in the employee’s personnel file.

Second, if your employees are to be employees at-will, you must clearly state that fact. In addition, you should include a disclaimer in the front of the book that specifically states that the handbook is not an employment contract and should not be construed as a contract. This statement should be in bold type or some other format that makes it stand out.


I have heard a few lawyers oppose the creation of handbooks. Having served, however, as in house counsel to both Fortune 500 and small companies, as well as practicing for many years, it is my view that the employer is best served by using a well-crafted handbook to guide its employees and inform them of the company’s ethics, values, and ways of doing business.

Different Handbooks

I strongly recommend that you have multiple loose-leaf handbooks if you have both exempt and non-exempt employees and/or unionized employees. Use a book aimed toward the appropriate group. Exempt employees may have benefits not available to others or vice-versa, so it is prudent to avoid disclosing benefits of one group to the other to the extent possible.

I also prepare for clients a book for supervisors only that includes the text of the handbook with guidelines for its use directed at supervisors. It provides them a practical tool for everyday use. Supervisors are the key to successful application of personnel policies, so crafting a book for them helps them administer the policies more effectively.

For more information about employee handbooks, whether your business should have one, and their legal implications, contact Attorney-Author Kenneth Sprang at ksprang@wibclaw.com or 202-340-1215.