An employee handbook will end up being the most important document your company will ever write up. So says Michael Shadiack, an attorney at Connell Foley in Roseland and frequent speaker on the subject.
Ah, but no two companies are the same, and neither should be their employee handbooks. Those handbooks are meant to steer company policy and, to an extent, company culture. That’s why Shadiack says that when a company pirates another company’s handbook or gets “some canned handbook” via software, the result is “a disaster.”
Things don’t need to be so dramatic or complicated. To help companies figure out the best approach to writing their own handbooks, Shadiack will present “Employee Handbooks: Connecting Compliance & Culture” at the New Jersey Business & Industry Association’s Business Bootcamp on Wednesday, November 29, beginning at 8:30 a.m. at 10 Lafayette Street, Trenton. It will also be simulcast as an interactive event online. Cost: $55. Visit www.njbia.org.
Joining Shadiack will be his frequent co-presenter and friend, Nancy Sommer, an HR expert at Impact Human Capital. Shadiack will present the more legal side of developing and implementing a handbook; Sommer the culture side of policy. Kim Cowperthwait, coordinator of member programs for the NJBIA, will also speak.
Shadiack grew up in Pompton Lakes in a family brimming with educators and entrepreneurs. His father was a principal, and his mother and aunts and uncles on both sides were teachers.
One thing he learned from being around so many educators was that ideas are best when openly exchanged. And one thing being around entrepreneurs taught him was that pretty much every business really does have its employees in mind.
“Employers want to do the right thing,” he says. “They want a good working environment; they want to pay their employees fairly.”
The business owners in Shadiack’s family were no different. And, like a lot of small businesspeople, his family members were also fairly clueless how to get that right thing done.
“They wanted to do the right thing, but they didn’t know how,” Shadiack says. “When I got to Seton Hall, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”
What he wanted to do was go to law school and help teach businesses how to develop and implement policies that would make the workplace fair and consistent. Shadiack earned his bachelor’s in prelaw and liberal studies at Seton Hall in 1995 and his J.D. in 1998. He jumped immediately into employment law at Courter Kobert Laufer & Cohen. In 2003 he joined Connell Foley, where he is now a partner and chair of the firm’s Employment Law Practice Group.
In his almost 20 years in practice, Shadiack has learned a few consistent things about employee handbooks and the policies they outline:
There is no one right document for everyone. Employee handbooks, Shadiack says, need to be tailored to each business, according to size, industry, mission, and federal/state/municipal codes.
Too often, he says, employers use a different company’s model without paying attention to specific aspects of that company’s business and culture. The result is something that doesn’t work, confuses everyone, and becomes counterproductive to the main objectives for having a handbook in the first place.
Handbooks should keep three objectives in mind. The first objective, Shadiack says, is to communicate clear policies with employees and staff; to simply lay out the rules. The second is that a handbook should improve efficiency and consistency in handling a questionable situation. Third, if drafted properly, a handbook should help reduce litigation — and crafting it properly means getting those first two objectives in order.
A handbook can be a genuine morale booster. It might not be the most exciting topic to most employees, but Shadiack says that having a well-written employee handbook can actually make a happier workplace. Workers, he says, realize the company has thought about them and about fairness and about keeping the workplace rules consistently enforced.
“Employees need to feel valued and protected,” he says. With a handbook in place spelling out the rules and policies, “they think, ‘The company’s investing in me; they want me to know I’m protected.’”
A handbook is not a static document. Nobody, not even the best chaos theoretician, can predict every outcome.
“There’s always going to be potential gray areas,” Shadiack says. “That’s why a handbook is a living document.”
A handbook needs to be revisited, preferably annually, and updated accordingly, he says. In the interim, Shadiack recommends using a cutting-edge technique to keep up with what those changes should be — a pen and a yellow legal pad. Write down moments and incidents, ideas, and suggestions. Then, when it’s time for a review, the management will have information it needs to make updates.
What should be in every handbook? Shadiack says three main points need to be spelled out every time. One is that it needs to be clear employment is at will. An employee can leave and an employer can fire. Two is a stipulation allowing management to enter into any kind of employment agreement with a worker. Three is a stipulation spelling out the company’s unpaid medical leave policy. This is especially important for companies smaller than 50 employees, Shadiack says, because those companies are not covered by federal leave guidelines.
What should not be in any handbook? Arbitration policy should never be in an employee handbook, Shadiack says. Arbitration policies are legal issues, whereas a handbook is not a contract. Similarly, never mention tuition reimbursement procedures or severance pay in an employee handbook. Again, those are legal, contractual matters.
The watchword, Shadiack says, is consistency, because consistency equals fairness. If everyone knows the rules, then everyone can play fairly — and everyone can have a backup if someone isn’t playing fairly.
By the way, fairness means having everyone, including the executives (who are often exempted from having to sit through handbook topics like sexual harassment training) get and abide by the handbook. The current backlash against public figures accused of sexual impropriety, Shadiack says, is evidence of how important it is for there to be no double standard when it comes to fair practice and sound policy in the workplace.
Workplace policies are not always easy conversations, Shadiack says. But they’re important. And he is grateful to have a job in which he gets to help people understand what they need to know.
“In some strange way, I feel like I’m giving back to my family,” he says. “And this job fits my personality. I don’t mind being the front man on this.”