On The Same Page

Developing an employee handbook

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If life came with a set of instructions there would be fewer surprises…and things would be much less interesting. While equine veterinary practices are in the business of tending to the unexpected, it’s best to ensure that the entire team is on the same page. Hence, the utility of an employee handbook.

“Employees need to know what the expectations are in terms of performance,” says Tracy Dowdy, founder and managing director of Management Resource Group Consulting in Dallas, Texas. “Without having those things clearly communicated in writing, it leaves a lot of room for assumptions.”

No matter the industry, employee handbooks cover a handful of general work-related items that include everything from the organization’s business hours and policy on absenteeism and lateness, to its policies on time-off benefits, leave of absences, compensation, overtime, pay schedule and termination procedures, disciplinary action, sexual harassment, promotion, performance evaluations and accident and safety procedures.

Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, PHR and founder of interFace Veterinary HR Systems in Appleton, Wisconsin, notes that the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) offers a CD-ROM containing a standard policy manual, but warns practices to review their individual situations. She also cautions that when establishing a policy, you must be 100-percent certain that it applies to everyone.

“Could you uphold this policy if it was your very best technician that was making this mistake?” she challenges. “You have to be willing to apply it across the board.”

While it’s important to cover the necessary ground, it’s equally crucial that the employee handbook exclude anything that can get the practice into trouble. If drafted poorly, they can leave practices open to lawsuits for discrimination and wrongful termination. Marty Miller, human resources practice leader at Veterinary Business Advisors in Flemington, New Jersey, warns against making any references to probationary periods, since that circumvents any at-will employment arrangement. He also notes that practices should be careful when establishing their disciplinary procedures.

“Don’t include, within the disciplinary action section, that steps will be taken in a certain order,” he says. “Some handbooks will say, ‘the first action is a verbal warning, the second is a written warning,’ and so forth. You want to make sure that management has the flexibility to take whatever action it deems appropriate.”

When written well, the handbook serves as a form of protection. “From a legal perspective, it protects the practice owner, the business and the employee,” Dowdy says. “If, for some reason, that employee is outside of the scope of what they’re supposed to be doing in their job, many times, employee handbooks will support grounds for termination. If you didn’t have any of those policies in writing, the employee can come back and say: ‘You never told me that. I didn’t know that was part of my job.’”

The employee handbook should be reviewed on an annual basis; however, addendums—either resulting from a change of law, or because of a new development in the practice—may be written at any time, as long as everyone receives a copy and signs off that they have read it and understand it. In fact, Dobbs underlines, the policy manual should be a regular topic of conversation in order for it to be effective.

“Once you develop this policy manual and distribute it to all of your employees, they are going to put it on the shelf, and they probably won’t look at it until they have a question,” she says. “If you have monthly staff meetings or an employee newsletter, spotlight a policy each time.”

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