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Dust off and update that employee handbook

Policy manuals protect organizations from liability, set expectations, provide organizational information and help promote company as an employer of choice

By Brian Kreissl

“We need you to update our employee handbook.”

Those words can send chills down the spine of even the most capable and diligent HR practitioner.

If your organization is like many, the employee handbook sits on a shelf somewhere gathering dust. Lots of companies have handbooks that are outdated, non-compliant and considered irrelevant by managers and employees. You’d be forgiven for asking why you should even bother updating a document no one pays attention to anyway.

Whether it’s in print or online, having a comprehensive, up to date and legally compliant policy manual provides context and helps set expectations. Both new and existing employees need to know about organizational rules, culture and values, as well as information about processes and procedures, roles and responsibilities, contact details and where to go for further information.

A properly drafted employee handbook serves as evidence in defence of litigation. For example, when an employee is terminated for inappropriate Internet use, a court would look for a carefully worded e-mail and Internet use policy to help determine if just cause exists.

In many cases, legislation mandates specific policies must be developed and communicated to employees. An example of this is Bill 168, Ontario’s violence and harassment legislation, which provides that organizations must develop anti-harassment and workplace violence policies. A natural place to include those policies is in the employee handbook.

Some of the most compelling reasons to have an updated handbook have nothing to do with compliance — including employee engagement and retention, onboarding, performance management and effective employee communications.

A handbook is an excellent place to provide organizational information. This typically includes details about the company’s history, vision, mission and values. Such information helps facilitate effective onboarding of new employees and socialization of the organizational culture. It can also help to drive cultural change and set expectations around performance with respect to existing employees.

An effective policy manual facilitates effective employer branding by helping to position the organization as an employer of choice, particularly where the company’s HR programs are highly competitive. Yet, part of an effective employer branding strategy is being authentic and transparent with employees.

While employers need to be as positive and upbeat as possible, there’s no sense in including misinformation about the organization or its culture and values. Keep it real, otherwise you’ll lose the trust of employees. There needs to be a balance between promoting the organization and providing realistic, helpful information. That’s where a carefully worded and current employee handbook can help.

With modern technology and business practices, employers no longer even need a traditional print-based handbook. Many organizations have posted their employment policies on an HR Intranet, but keep in mind policies need to be easy to find and organized in a logical manner.

Some may argue having an employee handbook seems rather old school and a bit paternalistic. That’s a valid point, but the content doesn’t always have to come across as heavy-handed or patronizing. While there does need to be information about organizational rules, wherever possible the tone should be more informational than prescriptive.

The employee handbook doesn’t have to actually be labelled as such — giving it a unique name specific to the organization may be more appropriate.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at For more information see

Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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