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Importance of an Employee Manual for NonProfit Organizations

By Amber Kemps

Many not-for-profit organizations fail to address important operational and organizational formalities, such as an employee manual, because their focus is on their mission and goals. Smaller not-for-profit organizations may not believe an employee manual to be necessary when, in fact, any organization with more than one employee should have one in place. An employee manual is a key communication for both employees and employers – it acquaints employees with the organization’s history, culture and vision and informs them of the benefits and resources available. At the same time, an employee manual may protect the organization from legal claims, including those of discrimination, by establishing clear expectations.

Numerous software packages contain templates that will help create an employee manual for your organization. These templates are a good start, but time needs to be invested in order to customize the manual to fit the organization’s specific needs. The policies and procedures detailed in the employee manual will also vary due to the size of the organization, the number of employees and the benefits offered.

A well-written manual will contain clearly communicated policies that are consistently applied. It is important to ensure that the manual cannot be interpreted as an employment contract. First and foremost, it is necessary to establish the employment relationship – specifically that the relationship is “at will.” That is, employment is on a mutually voluntary basis and not for any particular length of time. Both the employee and the employer can terminate the relationship for any lawful reason, or no reason at all, with or without notice. In an employee manual, avoid language suggesting that employment can be terminated only for specific causes; this type of language can be interpreted as an employment contract in a court of law.

The employee manual should also explain that the organization is an equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate against employees or applicants on the basis of race, color, religion, creed, sex, national origin, age, disability or any other legal status. This policy must apply to recruiting, hiring, compensation, promotion, discipline and termination.

Discrimination and harassment are two of the most common reasons for litigation against an employer. As such, be sure to include anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies in your employee manual. Be very clear that there will be no tolerance for harassment or discrimination of any kind. Specify how, and to whom, employees can report these issues, and what procedures you will follow to investigate complaints.

Employee classification and overtime rules should be clearly defined in your manual. Be clear when distinguishing between full-time workers, part-time workers and independent contractors. Include information on eligibility for leave policies such as vacation, sick time, and holidays. Employers with 50+ employees are required to comply with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and therefore, the employee manual should include a detailed FMLA section.

Employee benefits are another important topic to include. It is not necessary to go into every detail in the employee manual; simply highlight the offerings and eligibility standards. Some organizations offer a separate employee benefits guide that goes into further detail.

Today, it is also very important to include a technology policy, which should include a section on media communication and social media expectations. Be clear that employees have no expectation to privacy while working on company-owned devices; if you monitor employee communications, you should disclose that information. Your employee manual should outline how to handle media inquiries and acceptable uses of social media as it relates to the not-for-profit organization.

An employee manual ensures that everyone in the organization has received, and is operating from, the same information. Be sure to have employees sign a receipt or acknowledgement of having read the manual so that the organization has a record. It is important to reiterate the “at will” nature of the employment relationship again on the acknowledgement form.

Perhaps most importantly, have an employment attorney review your manual and any changes. When it comes to employee manuals, every word – said or unsaid – counts!