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Why should I get an employee handbook (or why should I get a lawyer to review mine)? – Part 1

At LexLeyton we meet and speak to a wide range of businesses about anything and everything to do with HR and employment law.

One topic that comes up a lot, particularly with smaller businesses and start-ups, is why having an employee handbook and keeping it up to date is so important. So why should you have a handbook? And if you already have one, why should you have it reviewed?

Meet your minimum legal obligations

There are lots of pieces of legislation that impact upon how businesses manage their people and dictate what information must be given to employees when they start.

Some of this information must be provided in a ‘written statement’ (typically the contract of employment) whilst other bits can be provided in ‘some other document which is reasonably accessible to the employee’. That ‘some other document’ is often an employee handbook.

To comply with the ‘written statement’ requirements an employee handbook should typically contain as a bare minimum;

  • disciplinary procedures and rules,
  • grievance procedures,
  • details about sick pay and procedures,
  • information about pensions (even more important now that all employers are subject to the pension auto-enrolment regime).

In addition any business with more than five employees is required by law to have a written health and safety policy and to bring this to the attention of all employees – so something else to think about including in your handbook.

Whilst ticking legal boxes is important, a well put together handbook can do much more to benefit your business, it’s culture, and your ability to attract and retain the best people.

Satisfy other legal obligations

The must have requirements outlined above apply to virtually all employers, but some will have other legal boxes they need to tick. For example, it will probably not have escaped your attention that last year there was a fundamental change to the UK’s data protection legislation.

GDPR and the new Data Protection Act 2018 place significantly more emphasis on transparency in the way in which data is managed to include employee data, and make it harder to simply rely on consent as a justification for processing it; which is an approach many employers had taken previously.

Onerous accountability obligations mean that employers need to have put in place, communicated and embedded appropriate policies and procedures in order to demonstrate compliance.

One way of achieving transparency around employee data processing, rather than relying on consent, is to make sure you have a ‘privacy notice’ setting out the types of data which you may gather during the course of someone’s employment with your business, how it will be processed, and your justification for all of that.

Including this document in your employee handbook is a great way of ensuring it is brought to the attention of your people, helping you to demonstrate compliance with the new regime.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which is in charge of enforcing GDPR and Data Protection has made it clear it will take a firm approach to breaches of the new laws.

Meet third party obligations

Most businesses will have some kind of obligation to third parties such as their key clients or suppliers, some imposed by contract and some by law. Where these exist it is vital to ensure that employees understand what they have a duty around, or are responsible for.

As an example, the Modern Slavery Act requires all companies with a turnover of more than £36 million to publish a statement explaining the steps they have taken, to ensure that their business is not tainted by slavery or human trafficking.

That may sound like an issue that only impacts large companies. In practice it actually impacts the whole supply chain as the larger companies who are required to publish statements will look to the smaller companies who supply them for reassurances about their own approach to modern slavery. For that reason many of our clients are finding that having a policy on modern slavery is a pre-requisite to winning new contracts and keeping existing ones.

Of course a policy is unlikely to be effective if it has not been communicated to employees, so it should be in the handbook.

Protect the business

Having the right set of policies and procedures in place can help employers avoid nasty consequences when their employees have done something wrong.

In cases of sexual harassment for example where employers are in principle, liable for the acts of their individual employees, a business can defend itself by showing that it took ‘all reasonable steps’ to prevent the behaviour. To run that defence it is vital to be able to show that adequate policies and procedures were in place, communicated to all employees, and that they were treated seriously. Having the policies in the handbook will help to demonstrate that.

Another area to think about is ‘whistleblowing’. To encourage exposure of wrongdoing in the workplace, certain protection is offered to employees who ‘blow the whistle’ about things they witness so they can’t be punished or dismissed for speaking out.

Most employers would rather know what is happening in their business and prefer to hear it from the inside, rather than have disgruntled employees leave or, worse, speak out publicly or even report them to the authorities. An open culture can be encouraged by having a clear policy on whistleblowing which empowers employees to report matters internally and reassures them of their legal protections. Another benefit of having a whistleblowing policy is that an employee who ignores it, and speaks out publicly without coming to the business first, may well find that they no longer qualify for protection.

LexLeyton can help you draft or update your existing employee handbook. If you would like a free review and consultation with one of our expert employment solicitors to help you get started with a set of bespoke recommendations please register here

Why should I have an employee handbook (or why should a lawyer review my handbook?) – Part 2

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