August 16, 2023

How Handbooks Can Save The Day

Jeff was a decade into running his business when he realized that he had a problem. 

At first, the team started a small group of his personal friends and connections – classmates from Jeff’s time at Waterloo, people he knew from other companies, his girlfriend, and they had all come together to help get this new software company off the ground. Things were slow at first, but after a few years things began to pick up steam, and the team began to grow.

Today the company is unrecognizable from where it was just a few years ago. Jeff’s core team of 7 founding employees is now well over 30 people – all segmented into different departments and with each handling different core responsibilities in the business. The trouble is that while the company may be unrecognizable in the best of ways, the team is largely unrecognizable to Jeff. 

The Risks of Rapid Growth

When Jeff and his team first began hiring employees, the process was fairly simple. Inevitably when they realized that they needed somebody, one of the core team members had someone in their warm network who was looking, and after a quick interview, they had no problem bringing someone new on board. Thankfully that ad hoc process brought them some great team members. 

As the team grew further, Jeff and his team had begun to cobble together job ads that they could post on LinkedIn and some other job sites in order to recruit new talent. The ads were successful, and soon managers were able to hire their own teams, with Jeff having little input or oversight. In no time the team grew to a size where Jeff simply did not recognize everyone. 

To his credit, Jeff understood the importance of employment contracts. As a young employee fresh out of school he had been wrongfully terminated by an employer, and his lawyer explained the costs the employer could face because they had no written contracts. Jeff made sure that every new employee was offered an employment contract, and he thought that had him covered.

However, as things grew past Jeff’s immediate circle, he found it harder and harder to manage employees’ day-to-day activities and behaviours. Himself a stickler for tardiness, he noticed many of his new hires starting work late, or often leaving early. Jeff also grew annoyed with employees clearly browsing social media during important meetings, and showing up to client meetings in casual attire (something perfectly acceptable in the office when clients are not present). 

When Jeff did try issuing discipline, or reminding them of the rules, employees would usually come back with the same response – they had no idea that what they were doing was a problem.

How Handbooks Can Save The Day

Little did Jeff know at the time that the answer to his problems was an employee handbook. Of course, Jeff had been familiar with employee handbooks from previous roles he’d had with larger companies, but he’d never paid much attention to them. He felt that he knew the rules, and as long as he didn’t step ‘out of bounds,’ he didn’t anticipate having a problem.

What Jeff did not know is that handbooks do so much more than that. Beyond just laying down the rules, a handbook offers employees a much clearer picture of the employer’s expectations in the workplace. This is why most handbooks contain policies on everything from dress codes to social media usage to even hours of work and lateness policies. 

While employment contracts are imperative, a comprehensive employment handbook can, and should, form part of that contract as well. If the written contract of employment references the handbook, and the handbook is provided to employees at the time that they sign the contract, those handbook policies can be enforced just like any other portion of the employment contract. 

While handbooks may not be mandatory, certain policies are. For instance, every employer must have a policy dealing with workplace violence and bullying.  Also, while not strictly mandated by statute, employers should also have a policy dealing with human rights and workplace accommodations. Such policies help greatly when defending a human rights application.   

That means that infractions to policies can be just as serious as an employee disobeying any other key part of their employment contract. This makes room for progressive discipline – clearly, it would be heavy-handed to fire an employee for a single dress code violation. Yet if the handbook is written properly, an employer can use progressive discipline of written and verbal warnings, suspensions, and even potentially termination with cause for refusing to comply. 

The Upshot

The piece that many employers without an in-house or outsourced HR team fail to realize is that employee policies and handbooks are equally as important as employment contracts, and both can go a long way towards protecting you as an employer. Not only do those policies set clear expectations, but they can include comprehensive discipline for failing to meet those expectations, up to and including termination for cause.

Without any written policies, it is difficult to enforce expectations that an employee did not even realize were in place. You may not be happy with an employee’s casual dress, but unless you have confirmed your expected dress code in writing, and are carefully noting any violations of that policy, employees cannot be expected to meet an employer’s every whim. 

For employers, remember that a handbook helps keep you firmly in the driver’s seat. If you want a policy banning personal social media usage during the workday, you can have one. If your brand colours are black and orange and you are adamant that any employee uniforms match those colours, you can write that policy. 
Yet for these handbooks to be effective, they need to be written by a skilled professional. As employment lawyers, we routinely support our clients in drafting both contracts as well as policy handbooks and making sure that the two clearly set out your expectations as an employer and the consequences of disobedience. Contact us today to set up a consultation.