What is the staff handbook?
A staff handbook, otherwise known as an employee handbook, employee manual or company handbook, is designed to provide employees with information relating to their working conditions over and above that contained within the contract of employment.
Although the employment contract will set out the core terms and conditions governing the working relationship between you and your employee, the staff handbook may contain additional contractual provisions relating to matters such as sick pay or holiday entitlement. Typically, the staff handbook will also provide guidance on all other employment related matters, for example, health and safety within the workplace or disciplinary and grievance procedures.
The benefits of the staff handbook
The staff handbook can be an essential component of an effectively managed workplace. It is a practical way of collating all workplace policies and procedures in an easily accessible format. As such, it can provide a one-stop information point where employees can access all the necessary information they are likely to need in relation to working for you.
The staff handbook will essentially communicate on your behalf what is expected of your employees, as well as what they can expect from you, through a clear set of guidelines on how issues will be handled within the workplace. The provision of a staff handbook will demonstrate a commitment to your workforce to treat them fairly and in accordance with the law.
Furthermore, by implementing fair and legally compliant policies and procedures within the staff handbook, this is likely to minimise any employment disputes and help to reduce the potential for disharmony within the workplace.
The legal requirements relating to staff handbooks
In the UK there is no statutory requirement to provide your employees with a staff handbook, although it is good practice for an employer to ensure that all policies and procedures are at the very least documented and easily accessible.
If, of course, any contract of employment (or written statement of particulars) contains specific reference to separate workplace policies and procedures, you must make these available to employees in one form or another.
What an effective staff handbook should include
There is no single authoritative template for a staff handbook. Whilst there will be features common to all, it can be adapted to suit the different needs of each business. If you are providing a staff handbook for the first time, you may want to start with a few key policies, adding to this over time as your business grows.
In practical terms, the staff handbook should be clearly set out, in a logical and comprehensible format. Having briefly explained the ethos and aims of your organisation within the introduction, the staff handbook should go on to set out each workplace policy in turn, categorising the information provided.
Below are some of the key workplace policies and procedures typically contained within a staff handbook. This list is by no means exhaustive and should be adapted to meet the needs of your business.
Conduct at work
A conduct policy is not just about attendance at work or performance review. It should include all information pertaining to the practicalities of starting work within your organisation. Typically, a conduct policy will provide your employees with information relating to:
- attendance at work and notification of absences
- performance review procedures
- probationary periods and criminal record checks
- use of company premises and company property
- computer, email and internet use
- smoking, or use of alcohol and other substances
- dress codes or appearance
- receipt of gifts, bribery or other corrupt behaviour
- conflicts of interest
- confidentiality and data protection
- changes in personal contact information.
Diversity and dignity at work
It is good practice to incorporate within your staff handbook those policies that specifically relate to the welfare of your employees. In particular, there should be detailed reference and information pertaining to the following key issues:
- equality and equal opportunities
- disability discrimination
- bullying and harassment
- stress at work
Financial entitlement at work
Whilst the contract of employment should contain the salary details for an individual employee, the staff handbook should cover all general matters relating to pay, benefits and pensions. This can include:
- pay arrangements and overtime
- business travel or other work related expenses
- statutory and occupational sick pay provision
- pension entitlement and opting out of pension schemes.
Taking time off work
Here the staff handbook should include all provisions relating to non-sickness related absences, from holiday entitlement to compassionate leave. Typical leave arrangements will include:
- annual leave and pay
- maternity and paternity leave and pay
- shared and unpaid parental leave
- time off for dependants.
Health and safety at work
As an employer you should maintain, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of your employees and other persons who may be affected by any business activities or being on your premises. It is therefore prudent to ensure that the staff handbook contains provision relating to health and safety procedures that you have in place. These should include:
- first aid and designated first aiders
- fire safety on the premises
- personal safety at work
- procedures in the event of an accident.
Ending the employment contract
There are various different issues to consider when an employee leaves your employment, including how much notice should be given and the return of company property. Matters commonly contained within the staff handbook relating to an employee leaving work include the following:
- Notice periods for dismissal and resignation
- Working notice and pay in lieu
- Return of company property and other conditions on leaving work
- Redundancy and retirement.
Disciplinary and grievance procedures at work
A disciplinary or grievance may be raised in relation to any of the aforesaid provisions, from conduct in the workplace to rights on redundancy. It is therefore essential to have a clearly defined procedure within the staff handbook for both disciplinary and grievance matters so that employees are fully aware of how any workplace dispute will be handled.
Guidance can be found in the ‘Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures’ provided by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS). You are not legally bound to follow this Code, although its guidance will be taken into account by an employment tribunal if the employee lodges a claim for unfair dismissal. Further, the tribunal will also be able to adjust any award made by up to 25 per cent for unreasonable failure to comply with any provision of the ACAS Code.
Failing to provide a staff handbook
A staff handbook not only sets out the rights and responsibilities of employees in the workplace, it can provide you as the employer with some protection where an employee raises a grievance or complaint against you.
In circumstances where your staff handbook does not cover a particular eventuality, any decision relating to that employment issue may be open to challenge. In the absence of any staff handbook whatsoever, you will be left with very little ability to defend any decision-making process or workplace practice. As an employer, this will leave you extremely vulnerable if faced with a complaint to the employment tribunal.
If your business doesn’t have a staff handbook, or the handbook is out of date, at the very least this is likely to reflect badly on you as an employer. It is therefore important that you regularly review any workplace policies and procedures contained within your staff handbook to ensure that they meet the minimum statutory requirements under current legislation.
Further, all new employees should be asked to sign a declaration confirming receipt of the staff handbook, and that they have read and understood its contents.
Should I seek legal advice?
A well-drafted and maintained staff handbook will help ensure you meet duties as an employer, help employees understand their rights and responsibilities and ultimately mitigate the risk of claims by employees.
Employment law is both complex and subject to constant change. In circumstances where you get the law wrong, the financial and practical consequences for both you and your employees can be serious.
By securing expert legal assistance from an experienced employment law specialist, your workplace policies and procedures can be individually reviewed, updated or replaced to suit the specific needs of your business in accordance with any recent legislative changes.
A well-drafted and up-to-date staff handbook can provide you with the confidence that you are complying with all current statutory requirements, whilst meeting the economical and operational needs of both your business and workforce.