Who needs an employee handbook? If your pool service company has even one employee, you do.

This document defines your company’s standards, expectations and policies. It identifies the laws that apply to your company and acknowledges compliance with them. And it can help protect your firm in case of litigation initiated by an employee or ex-employee, or should a government representative drop in to investigate your employment practices.

The addition of employees adds significantly to a company’s concerns and accountability regarding these requirements and risks. Once a firm takes on a staffer, it becomes responsible for employment taxes, payroll and other compensation and benefits. It must comply with fair employment laws, OSHA, worker’s compensation and all other applicable local, state and federal laws and regulations.

“The precipice is huge between companies with no employees and those that have employees,” says David Hawes, owner of H&H Pool Services in Dublin, Calif.

In delegating responsibility to employees, you must be clear and thorough in describing their duties and performance requirements, as well as all company rules and policies they must honor.

A good employee handbook spells out all of this. And, once staffers sign an acknowledgment of the policies and their commitment to comply, you have gone a long way toward controlling company operations and defending yourself.

“You are taking a big gamble if you don’t have a handbook,” Hawes says.

Valuable sources
An employee handbook should contain two kinds of information — standard legal requirements such as nondiscrimination policies and workers’ compensation, and rules specific to your company.

A variety of sources provide guides, templates and online tools to help business owners and managers develop this document. These include business management books; government agencies such as OSHA and the U.S. Department of Labor; websites for chambers of commerce; smallbusinessnotes.com; human resources sites such as inspirity.com; and sites that specialize in business forms.

Other sources can provide more intensive instruction.

“I generally recommend that [business owners] purchase a commercially available handbook and customize it by adding their own policies and specific language,” says Nick Spirtos, an attorney and licensed general contractor in Montclair, Calif.

Help and advice also can come from vendors who provide business services and guidance, such as payroll companies and insurance firms. These providers can especially come in handy, since they already know important information about your company and its needs. And some of them have a vested interest in offering this kind of assistance.

“If you have insurance policies through a broker, they may help you for free or for a reasonable fee,” Spirtos says. “Any time you become liable, they may be liable.”

Customize it
Once you have a draft handbook in hand, it’s advisable to ask an employment attorney to review it, to make sure that all necessary laws and requirements are included, and that the wording is legally correct.

Standard, boilerplate, required content can be dropped into your handbook. It’s the sections specifically about your company and its rules and policies that may take some time to put together.

You may already have documents that cover some of these topics. As the metro Atlanta franchisee for the service firm America’s Swimming Pool Company, Scott Goodlett has developed many instructional or informational documents for his service technicians. Among these are a statement of the company’s guiding principles; a detailed job description; dress code; rules regarding professional and personal use of company trucks and equipment; base and performance-based pay policies; OSHA regulations; worker’s compensation; and a non-solicit agreement.

While the company carefully reviews these papers with new hires, Goodlett says, it’s still important to consolidate them into a handbook.

New importance
Hawes has been in the pool service business for 45 years, and has had an employee handbook for the past 25.

He’s learned some lessons that have helped improve his company’s document. The first version was built from a template without much customization or, he admits, an attorney’s involvement. Now he’s putting the finishing touches on a rigorous and comprehensive new handbook for his attorney to review.

He is finding that documents such as employee handbooks are becoming increasingly important at a time when the business world has become more litigious. A trend toward “boutique lawsuits” is of particular concern: Oftentimes, these are related to breaks required by his home state of California — 30-minute lunches, 10-minute morning and afternoon breaks — and to situations in which an employee leaves or is asked to leave.

He’s not the only one who sees this trend. “Wage and hour litigation is very popular among attorneys — and very profitable for them,” Spirtos says. “Attorneys are looking for these cases. The liability on breaks comes from the employer not enforcing the policy.”

In Hawes’ new handbook, he is focusing on protective wording, backed by diligent enforcement.

The company-specific component of his handbook falls basically into four sections:

• Company profile, with company culture, mission and goals;

• General description of the company’s work;

• Operating rules and systems, such as hours, time off, compensation, performance reviews, use of company property, dress code, and behavior in the workplace;

• Day-to-day rules, policies and procedures, such as how to deal with aggressive dogs, handle small chemical spills, or proceed if a client’s gate is locked.

In these sections, the key is to strike the right mix of general and specific. The policies need to be general enough to apply to all possible situations but specific enough to cover potential problem circumstances that you are aware of. You also don’t want to be so specific that you become locked into an approach, Spirtos says. Phrases such as “including but not limited to” can prove helpful in these matters. This is where a company can rely on an attorney.

“It’s a delicate balancing process,” Spirtos says.

Writing an employee handbook is not enough. Now matter how complete and well-worded the document, it is toothless unless employees receive it, agree to comply with it, and sign an acknowledgement saying so.

Management also should put in place procedures to enforce rules. Spirtos also advises updating the handbook at least annually to incorporate changes in the law and company policies. Updated handbooks then should go to all employees to read and sign off again.

Hawes employs about 10 technicians, and has a plan in place for introducing the new H&H Pool Services handbook to them. “I’m going to hand it out and give them two weeks to go through it,” he says. He will go over any questions they have, so as to reach a clear understanding.

Going forward, he will discuss a few pages of the handbook at every weekly technicians’ meeting. They will be reminded of the policies, he says, and he’ll keep notes on who was in attendance. The company will benefit as a result, and he will have legal protection in case problems arise that relate to the material covered.