Drafting and updating employee manuals, also called personnel manuals or employee handbooks, is a lot like getting your annual medical check up. It’s no fun to do, but we know that it’s an important part of our overall health maintenance. Making sure that your employee handbook is compliant and up to date is an important part of your company’s overall plan to keep good relations with your employees, and to stay out of disputes and lawsuits.
There are now many websites, some for free, that allow you to create your own employee manual. Most are actually pretty good. And a dirty little secret of employment lawyers is that many of us use these sites too, either as a starting point, or to find some better language.
Can you bypass your lawyer and create your own employee manual? No, at least not completely, because “pretty good” is not always good enough. With some effort, you can probably create an employee handbook yourself that is 80% to maybe even 90% accurate and complete. But it’s that missing/inaccurate 10-20% that will kill you.
Here’s why. There is no one-sized fits all handbook. First and foremost, different states have different statutory and common laws. Some of the standard provisions from handbooks created for a national audience would cause direct violations of Massachusetts laws (it’s akin to drinking bland, national beer, when you could be drinking Sam Adams, Harpoon or Pretty Things). Plus, you may be inadvertently placing unnecessary burden’s on your company. For example, you don’t want to obligate your company to comply with the FMLA if you only have 20 employees. There are many different state and federal statutes that apply to different businesses, usually depending on the number of employees.
Additionally, every industry and every business is different. There may be different provisions that you absolutely need for your industry. Different statutes you have to follow. There may be other provisions that fit or do not fit with your workplace culture.
But you should still benefit from the cost-effectiveness of having free or very reasonably priced personnel manuals readily available on the internet. If you want to manage legal costs, go ahead and create the employee handbook from a reputable site on the web. A good human resources professional could probably create a very good (90% or so) manual in this fashion with a few hours of effort. But don’t stop there. Have your trusted employment attorney spend a few hours to get your manual up to 100%.
The above discussion could apply in varying degrees to other employment and business documents, such as non-competes, non-solicitation agreements, confidentiality agreements, service contracts, etc. If you want to save legal dollars, sometimes you can think of the web as a starting point. But unless you see webmd.com as a viable alternative to a visit with your trusted primary care physician, don’t make it your ending point. Saving a few thousand dollars now could cost you tens or hundreds of thousands and a lot of heartache later.
By Adam P. Whitney 617.338.7000