Think an employee policy manual sounds too bureaucratic for your laboratory's un-corporate culture? Not true, say owners of small and large laboratories with manuals in place. "Whether you have five employees or 50, they still have the right to know what you expect from them and what you are going to provide," says Becky Vasquez, co-owner of 58-employee Becden Dental Laboratory, Draper, Utah. "Our manual is a commitment of the environment we strive to provide to both our employees and our customers and helps us start off with open communication."
A written manual can help eliminate the inconsistencies and misunderstandings that result from verbal communication—problems that can be compounded as your lab grows, experiences turnover or implements new practices. "Before we had a policy manual, there were memory conflicts: sometimes my employees remembered one thing when I thought I said another," says Scott Dyer, owner of five-employee Dyer Dental Laboratory in Las Vegas, who implemented a manual last year. "Writing down our policies has helped eliminate that confusion."
By documenting the rights and responsibilities of both the employer and employees, a policy manual can also provide legal protection. "Our manual not only clarifies the rules, but also protects the laboratory if someone cries foul," says Matt Murdock, human resources director at 160-employee Arrowhead Dental Laboratory in Sandy, Utah. For example, suppose an employee reads and signs a policy manual that states that no more than three unexcused absences are allowed. Later, that technician is terminated for excessive unexcused absences and he sues your laboratory for wrongful termination. The signed manual can be used in court as proof that he was aware of and agreed to the attendance policy.
However, in the busy day-to-day operations of running your laboratory, you may think about implementing an employee policy manual, but feel it's too time consuming or difficult. It doesn't have to be as overwhelming as you think. There's no one-policy-fits-all solution—the length and complexity of your policy manual should be tailored to your lab's needs, environment and size. For example, if your lab has 100 employees, its manual will likely be more detailed and comprehensive than that of a three-employee lab where it simply puts "understood" policies in writing in a one-page guide.
How to get started
Most lab owners agree that it's easiest to work with an existing policy manual. A sample will give you an idea of what other businesses include and a flavor for the language. Look for sample manuals in books, ask friends or relatives for copies of their company's manual or hire a consultant.
Consider getting input from key managers or technicians. Involving employees in the process shows them you're interested in developing policies that balance your interests with theirs and may alleviate anxiety about having "formal" policies in place.
In fact, at Bond Laboratories in Stuart, Florida, employees were the driving force behind developing a manual. Four years ago, as the lab began to grow and hire new technicians, the lab's employee committee approached Owner Brad Bond about the need for an employee manual. "They thought it would make things clearer to our new employees as to how we operate," says Bond, who today employs seven technicians. After getting some basic guidelines and information from Bond, the committee drew up the manual on its own—drawing on the past experience of one its members—and had Bond do a final review. "We work very closely and have personal relationships outside of the lab, so it was critical that the input came from the employees. If I had just laid a manual on them it wouldn't have worked. We had to be together on this."
What to include
Human resource and legal experts say two items are a must. First, include a disclaimer stating that the manual is not an employment contract and that employment with the lab is at will and can be terminated at any time. Without it, many state courts will regard your manual as a written employment contract.
Second, adopt a comprehensive policy that prohibits sexual harassment and discrimination based on race, gender, age, physical ability and religion. Be sure to include specific complaint procedures and, if you receive a complaint, act quickly. In case of a harassment lawsuit, you must prove that you were unaware of the behavior, that you promoted an environment that discouraged it and that you responded promptly and appropriately. This is perhaps the most important policy you can implement; court awards in these types of lawsuits have reached up to $34 million, according to Kari Uman, Executive Coaching and Consulting Associates in Washington, D.C. In addition to including it in your manual, it may also be a good idea to post it in a prominent area of the laboratory.
Here are some other policies your manual can include:
- Attendance and other employee expectations.
- Holidays and vacation time.
- Sick/personal time.
- Probation periods.
- Overtime. What is required, if any, and at what rate employees will be compensated.
- Benefits and insurance. Include the basics of what you provide—like 401(k) or health coverage—as well as other progressive benefits or incentives. Bond's manual details the lab's profit sharing policy and rewards for bringing in a new client.
- Performance review process.
- Leaves of absence.
- Safety practices.
- Non-compete contracts. Some states won't honor non-compete contracts unless they're signed when an employee is hired or given a substantial raise or promotion.
- Zero tolerance for aggressive/violent behavior.
- Grounds for termination.
- Your manual can also include:
- Company goals and mission statements. Some labs package this information in the form of a personalized welcome letter for new employees.
- Job descriptions.
- Technical procedures manual. A detailed procedures manual can help implement "best practices" and aid in the training of new employees and ensure consistency in case of job turnover. Encourage employees to come up with better or more efficient ways of doing things and to share their ideas.
When writing the policies, include what's required of the employee, what's not acceptable, the ramifications of not following the policies and what you as the employer provide. Also, be specific with wording. For example, if there are certain busy times of year that vacations are not allowed, instead of using the term "time off," say "vacation time." This can help avoid conflicts with an employee who wants a day off for recreation vs. an employee who needs a day off for special circumstances, like a doctor's appointment or sick child.
Once you've drafted your policy, have an attorney review it for wording and legal compliance. You may also want other business owners to read it for any missing elements. Once it's finalized, provide copies to all existing employees and make it standard practice to review the manual with each new employee. Give everyone a chance to read it on their own and ask questions. Then—though it may seem formal—have your employees sign and date a copy of the manual and file it in their personnel file.
Don't think of your policy manual as a rigid set of rules—it may need fine-tuning as your business changes or grows. "Our policy manual is not written in stone," says Becden's Vasquez. "It serves as a guideline and we periodically make changes to it." Over time you may decide that certain policies are too limiting, while others need to be further clarified. Some circumstances—like evolving technology—may initiate new policies. For example, as cell phones gained popularity at Arrowhead, they also became more disruptive; the lab recently added a "no cell phones" policy to its manual.
In addition, a written policy manual should not limit your ability as an owner or manager to make common sense decisions that may differ from those outlined in the manual. Make it clear that exceptions will be made in certain situations; for legal purposes Arrowhead's Murdock suggests including a statement to this effect in your manual.
Above all, let your actions—not just your manual—serve as the ultimate guide to your employees. Your every day behavior can help create mutual respect, strengthen your relationships with your employees and bring the goals and guidelines outlined in your manual to life.