5 Employee Handbook Pointers for WI Employers

August 9, 2021

An employee handbook is an important tool for communicating an employer’s policies, procedures, and expectations. They are particularly good for assisting HR staff with onboarding new employees. Creating a well-drafted employee handbook can be challenging, particularly because it’s easy to confuse it with employee contracts. Here are some things to remember when drafting and editing an employee handbook.

Handbook essentials

1. Employee handbooks aren’t contracts. Wisconsin, like most states, is an employment-at-will state. That means unless the employer and employee modify the at-will relationship by entering into a written employment contract, the employee is free to quit at any time, and the employer is free to dismiss the employee at any time, provided the discharge doesn’t violate state or federal law.

Therefore, if you wish to maintain an employee’s at-will employment status, don’t suggest or indicate the handbook is an employment contract. Rather, the handbook should contain a clear statement that it isn’t a contract. It’s only a guide that doesn’t alter the at-will employment status.

2. Employees should sign an acknowledgment of receiving the handbook. Although the employee handbook isn’t a contract, it typically identifies and explains important employment policies, including the bases for discipline and dismissal. In the event you dismiss an employee for violating a policy and she challenges the discharge by asserting you never gave notice about it, you can introduce the signed acknowledgment of receipt to impeach the claim.

If employees are working remotely, they should be required to sign the acknowledgment of receipt and forward a scan of it to you. You should place the signed acknowledgments in their personnel files. Notably, you don’t have to establish they actually read the manual, only that they received it.

3. You should disclaim that the handbook is a comprehensive statement of all your company’s policies. It’s impossible to list every employment policy or anticipate every type of disciplinary issue that may arise in the workplace. The employee handbook should contain a disclaimer making it clear you reserve the right to maintain and develop additional policies and practices that may not be included in the handbook.

You can add a statement saying you’ll do your best to inform employees of relevant policies. The handbook also should include a statement encouraging workers to ask their managers for further clarification.

The point is employees shouldn’t be able to use the absence of a written policy in the handbook as a basis to stop you from imposing discipline. Consistent with the concept that employment is at-will, you remain free to dismiss an employee, so long as the discharge doesn’t violate state or federal law and regardless of whether the basis for discipline is stated in the handbook.

4. Reserve the right to update and amend the employee handbook. A handbook is a snapshot of a moment in time. Employment law and your policies and procedures continually evolve. You should include a statement explaining you reserve the right to modify and amend the handbook.

Similar to No. 3 above, employees shouldn’t be able to claim your failure to update the handbook to include a new policy stops you from enforcing it. Ideally, you should update the manual regularly. Each time you do so, be sure to obtain employee acknowledgments of receiving the updated handbook.

5. Reserve the right to bypass progressive discipline. Many employers use a form of progressive discipline and provide a description of the procedure in the handbook. Under progressive discipline, an employee who commits an infraction (e.g., taking a tool home for personal use without asking permission) may receive:

  • Verbal reprimand for the first infraction;
  • Written reprimand placed in the employee’s file for a second infraction;
  • One-day suspension without pay for a third infraction; and
  • Dismissal for a fourth infraction.

Consistent with the employment-at-will doctrine, however, you should include a statement noting you reserve the right, in your sole discretion, to (1) bypass progressive discipline and (2) apply whatever disciplinary measures you consider appropriate, including dismissal. In other words, the handbook is a guide. It doesn’t bind you to progressive discipline if you don’t believe it’s appropriate.

Bottom Line

Employment handbooks aren’t contracts. They are guides intended to provide useful information about your policies and practices. Good manuals preserve employment-at-will status and make it clear the handbook isn’t comprehensive and is subject to amendment.

Obtain a written acknowledgment from all employees noting they have received a copy of the handbook. If it includes progressive discipline, be sure you reserve unilateral discretion to bypass it.

This article, slightly modified to note recent updates, was featured online in the Wisconsin Employment Law Letter and published by BLR®—Business & Legal Resources. Reproduced here with the permission of BLR®—Business & Legal Resources.