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Be careful with online employee handbook tools because they may have costly compliance gaps

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If you need to write an employee handbook, or your handbook hasn’t been updated since COVID, you’ve probably googled “employee handbook tools” or “handbook templates” to speed up the project timeline.

A small sample of some things you may have encountered in your search:

  • Handbooks.io, whose offerings range from a free basic handbook to a comprehensive subscription.
  • Blissbook, an employee handbook tool for crafting an interactive handbook.
  • ProProfs, which is employee handbook-dedicated software.

For an on-demand webinar that’ll be a big help to you, click here.

“They’ve available everywhere … from general HR sites like SHRM. … Some of them are even industry-specific, so if you go to some trade group’s website or resources, they’ll have their own,” said Pennsylvania attorney Jake Sitman, shareholder and chair of the employment and labor relations group of law firm Fitzpatrick, Lentz & Bubba.

Although employee handbook tools are a great help for completing a draft version of your handbook, he said, they might not be suitable for every employer due to company size, industrial regulations, varying state employment laws and more.

“If you’re not tailoring [a handbook] to your own workforce and your own specific needs and experience … and you’re making mistakes, ultimately they’re going to come back to haunt you,” Sitman said.

In one case that his firm defended, a small business with less than 50 employees committed to FMLA compliance in its handbook although it wasn’t obligated to under the law. When it didn’t comply, an employee legally called them out on it.

Sitman commented: “The courts, with some degree of consistency, have said, ‘Hey look, we understand that you wouldn’t otherwise have to comply. But in your policies, you committed yourself, and the employees have relied on that representation you made in that handbook. So we’re going to require you to fulfill your obligation, or penalize you for not doing so.’”

Employee handbook tools and templates

Free or low-cost generic handbook templates come with a considerable level of compliance risk because they could be out of date in terms of federal, state or even local labor laws.

Describing other types of employee handbook tools that are available, Sitman said, “I know that there are some tools online where … it’s kind of like [a set of] checkboxes. … ‘For your sick leave policies … do you want A, B or C?’ And then you check ‘B’ and it moves you to the next option. … ‘Do you want to pay it out upon termination?’ … When you’re done checking all the boxes at the end, you have a finished product.”

To protect your organization from any compliance gaps, Sitman recommended having an experienced employment lawyer look at your handbook draft to ensure that it’s compliant with all applicable laws.

Sitman will offer additional guidance on policies and employee handbooks in an episode of the HRMorning podcast “Voices of HR” that you can listen to starting March 13.

Some best practices

  • When using employee handbook tools, go with an experienced, reliable vendor. Read up on product reviews.
  • Review your handbook every two years and assess if all of your policies are effective and appropriate for your industry. “Some [companies] simply grow. And if their internal workings have changed … for example, they’ve adjusted their time off policies in ways that aren’t now accurate in the handbook … employees become upset,” Sitman said.
  • Make sure your handbook is easy to understand for all employees.
  • If you’re a multi-state employer, you’ll either need a general handbook with addendums for each state where you have worksites or a separate handbook for each state where you have locations.

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