Employee Handbooks for Churches
Living in a litigious society that we have in the United States, I am often asked by clients and students, "Why should our organization have an employee handbook?" Quite often, my response is, "Why NOT?!" While many organizations have operated extremely effectively without a well defined, published set of guidelines, a far larger number often find themselves mired in turmoil as a result of one or two people who can create chaos for the masses.
In most organizations, regardless of the size of the employee population, issues will arise from time to time. Differences (disputes?) vary from church to church and company to company but the themes are usually around a few key themes:
- Information: Employees and Leaders (Managers) are unsure or unaware of "the rules."
- Communication: The rules are established, but have never been sufficiently distributed and explained to employees or managers. If they have, they are not enforced consistently.
- Flexibility: Employees and Managers operate in a loosely defined set of rules or processes that fit the needs of a specific department or function inside the larger organization.
Generally, these three operating situations are completely suitable until someone (employee or manager) breaks "the rules."
It's important to note that on a broad basis, most organizations operate smoothly and effectively. The majority of the employees do not need someone else in the organization to make certain that they adhere to the organizations norms. Key operating tenets such as start time, end time, lunch time, availability after hours, vacation and sick time are well articulated when someone starts employment. Over the course of employment, norms prevail on how people are to comply with the organization's norms or rules when they become ill, need to take a vacation, will be absent from work, have a Doctor or other appointment etc.
While I personally loathe policy and procedure manuals, I have found during my experience in both large and small organizations that issues arise most frequently among a small percentage of the people employed (less than 2 or 3 percent). That said, the management time involved in addressing these issues sometimes consumes more than 80 percent of the total time managing vs. doing work. Further, the "costs" associated with not addressing these issues can be substantial. Outside of lost time in productivity by the employee directly involved, the lost time by others who are not engaged and focused on the task at hand can be tremendous. Simply stated, these issues are a huge distraction, if not a large financial cost to the organization.
An employee handbook enables the managers of the organization to clearly and carefully outline the expectations of all employees. Moreover, there are clear lines of responsibility for policies, and where managers, and employees need to go should they have an issue or need a waiver from a particular policy. Too often, an employee's excuse for doing something outside the rules is, "I asked my manager, and he/she said it was okay!" The problem is that oftentimes an individual manager lacks organizational breadth and knowledge; making a decision in a vacuum can create issues for other functions or departments. For example, on the surface, it may seem okay to let someone change his/her schedule to accommodate rush hour traffic. Other managers may not be able to make this same accommodation based upon staffing needs (having phones covered, shift capacity, etc..,). Initially, we would laud a manager by being flexible and for helping an employee by addressing his needs. This one act of kindness has the potential to unwittingly create a great commotion within the organization.
I once heard that the definition of a policy is: A crummy rule--consistently applied! While this is frequently the mindset about policies, organizations generally have experienced much more success in implementing an employee handbook than not. When determining what should be included in a handbook, it's usually best to look to several key areas that most organizations encounter when addressing employee issues. Therefore, handbooks should address the following:
- A mission statement for the organization.
- The purpose of the handbook.
- Legally required statements (Equal opportunity, sexual harassment, state mandated laws, background checks, smoking on premises, etc)
- Compensation (how job descriptions are produced, changed, etc; salary ranges adjustments and increases; when payroll happens)
- Benefits (who is eligible for what, etc)
- Holidays and Vacations
- Absences and Leave (including personal, sick, family, short and long-term disability, military, jury, bereavement, etc.)
- Performance Management (including goal setting and performance appraisals, discipline procedure; termination and resignation
- An appeal or grievance procedure/process
- Miscellaneous (honoraria, solicitation, weather emergency, snow days, use of resources for personal time/gain, etc.)
- Computer and Information Security/Internet Policy
Once you have identified the key areas that you want to include, time needs to be taken to review current policies and practices and determine which of these need to be changed and how. Many times one individual will sit down and draft (re-draft) the entire document. Here are a couple ideas that may help in the communication of the change to the organization, which ultimately may lead to a smoother implementation:
- Use employee groups: by convening an ad hoc, cross functional, diverse group of employees that represent as many demographic and hierarchical layers in the organization, your people can help guide the direction of and participate in the revision of the various policies you are trying to change and/or implement. It is critically important that the leader of the group has been provided a clear definition of the parameters of the project. This would include (but is not limited to): the duration and purpose of the team, what the team is allowed/not permitted to address, some general rules about how often the group should meet and who the group should contact if they have questions or need resources outside the group.
- Socialize the group's recommendation. At some point, using focus groups or subsets of the employee population as a sounding board is a useful way to ensure success and avoid pitfalls. When "pilot testing" the work of the committee, one needs to make certain that all segments of the organization are contacted and informally polled. After this is done, the group should meet and discuss the inputs received prior to implementing a policy
- Senior Leadership involvement. It is always helpful to have members of the senior leadership team actively involved in this process. This could take the form of sponsorship or mentorship of the team, serving on a review committee or multiple facets. Utilizing senior leaders in the process has two key advantages--it allows employees to get to know senior leaders; it also allows senior leaders the opportunity to get to know people in the organization with whom they may not interact with on a frequent basis.
After your policies have been written and socialized with your employees via focus groups or individual discussions, it is always prudent to engage an attorney to review your policies to ensure that they are compliant with Federal, State and local laws. An attorney who specializes in Labor and Employment Law is ideally suited for this review process. Many organizations are able to find these resources on a reduced fee or pro bono basis. Often attorneys in this area will be helpful by providing work samples which can help you develop your handbook quickly and efficiently.
Following the approval of the legal review and Senior Leadership team of your handbook, it is very important to hold small group meetings and distribute a copy of the handbook to each employee. Care should be taken to review the most impactful policies in the meeting and asking employees to review the document completely at their convenience. You should ask employees to sign a receipt which indicates that they have received the document, and will follow the policies it contains, as well as follow up with a designated individual should they have any questions. The handbook and receipt should be part of the new hire orientation process, and included in the discussion around benefits and job expectations when a new hire starts employment.
Of equal importance is keeping your employee handbook up to date. It is recommended that you review the document on an annual basis such that any changes in the laws can be reflected in the revision process. Many organizations seek inputs at a senior leadership staff meeting or from industry roundtables as a way to keep the document current. Most organizations utilize an electronic version of subsequent updates to the handbook. By placing a read only document on the public server, employees can read any updates that are communicated; at the same time, the organization is able to save money on costs associated with printing and storing copies of the handbook. Of course you would want to provide a way to notify leaders and managers of subsequent changes as well as ensure that the new information is disseminated to all of the people in the organization.
While writing and implementing an employee handbook can be extremely time consuming, most organizations that have never had a handbook report great satisfaction with devoting time and energy to this important activity in their organization. Those who have utilized an outdated handbook which has not been updated to reflect current practices report an equal amount of satisfaction and clarity for their people.
Mike Mayer has over 30 years of experience in corporate Human Resources and consulting with firms ranging in size from Fortune 10 to start-up. He is an adjunct instructor at Villanova University, and has taught the Human Resources class in the Villanova School of Business' MS in Church Management program for over 6 years.