When you start a new job, you have much to learn about your new role and workplace. One of the most helpful resources employers can provide is an employee handbook detailing the policies and guidelines of the company. However, there are some red flags to watch for when (and if) you receive one.
There isn’t one
If there isn’t an employee handbook given to you when you start, be wary. You could ask your employer if one is available, but if there isn’t, it could be a red flag. If an employee handbook is mentioned in your employment contract or offer letter, ask for a copy of it and review it fully before you accept the job offer.
Without an employee handbook, it can be more challenging to understand and access information related to your benefits, rights and expectations. Further, without a centralized document, there can be complications when it comes to complying with or enforcing workplace policies.
Laws, policies and workplaces change over time. If an employee handbook is outdated and doesn’t reflect new or revised information, it could be a sign that an employer does not have the resources to update it. Make sure to confirm with your employer which version of the employee handbook governs the employment relationship. When a new version becomes available (some employers issue a new handbook each year), review it closely to determine what policies have been added, amended, or removed. Ensure that any questions that you have in relation to the handbook are addressed.
An outdated handbook might also send the message that an employer does not prioritize their duties to keep workers informed of their rights and responsibilities.
The tone seems off
One of the primary functions of an employee handbook is to set the tone for new workers. Often, a handbook will discuss workplace culture, the company’s history and core values.
Pay attention to the tone the employee handbook sets. Does it align with what you know about the company? Are you put off by it? Does it come across as overly aggressive, demanding or out of touch? If it does, it could send off some alarm bells, particularly if there are several ways in which an employee can be disciplined or terminated for cause. Most of the time, the legal threshold for a “just cause” termination is a high one to meet, but not impossible, so review any provisions regarding serious misconduct closely. When you review an employee handbook, make sure to review the provisions on bullying and harassment in depth, including how the employer investigates and handles such complaints.
Sometimes an employer will include termination provisions in an employee handbook instead of in an employment contract, so it is important to review these sections carefully to ensure you are aware of your severance entitlements. Consider whether the termination provisions limit you to just the statutory entitlements for severance or if you will be eligible for a longer notice period under common law.
There is no way for employees to acknowledge it
Typically, employers will have you sign a form acknowledging you have read the handbook and understand it. Before you do so, it is recommended that you seek legal advice to discuss the contents of the employee handbook, because once you sign it, you are bound to its terms and policies since you’ve agreed to them. However, if there isn’t a way for you to do this, then you or your employer could later dispute the information or policies in it or challenge the fact that they may not be enforceable, or even applicable to your employment relationship.
The timing of when you sign an employee handbook is also important. If the employee handbook (or any other new document) is provided by the employer for you to sign after you start employment, the employer typically is required to provide you with “fresh consideration” (which is an incentive, or something of value in exchange for signing these new documents, for example a pay raise or a one-time bonus, etc.). Ideally, you will have copies of and sign all of the required documents (employment contract, employee handbook, company policies, etc.) before you start working.
An employee handbook might seem like just another piece of paper you get when you start a new job. However, it is crucial that you review it carefully and be on the lookout for these possible red flags, and don’t be afraid to clarify with your employer regarding its terms and conditions.