When you started work with your current employer, you should have received a copy of your contract of employment. You may also have received (or at the very least been shown) the staff handbook.

Red staff handbook

How do a contract of employment and a staff handbook differ?

Defining a contract

Your contract of employment is a contractual document between you and your employer. It sets out the terms of your employment and provides you with certain enforceable legal rights. Of course, that means that your employer also has certain legal rights as set out in your contract.

What is a staff handbook?

The aim of a staff handbook is to set out an employer’s policies, procedures and rules, as well as what you can or must do in certain situations. The handbook should also outline what is expected of each employee and what you can expect of your employer.

If it has been written well, the staff handbook should provide you with clear guidance so that you are left understanding your rights and responsibilities. As an employee, you should always have access to it.

It’s important to bear in mind that your employer will probably be able to amend their policies and handbook at any time, because they are usually not part of your employment contract. In the main part, you have no legal right to enforce provisions included in your employee handbook in themselves, but your employer will usually be expected to follow them when it comes to other claims.

For instance, there may be situations where you believe you have been discriminated against, and your employer’s equal opportunities policy has therefore been breached. While you won’t usually be able to bring a claim in its own right for breach of the policy, you will be able to use the fact that the policy had been breached as important evidence in the discrimination claim.

The same would be the case for disciplinary procedures where you have been employed for two or more years and have been dismissed for disciplinary reasons. While you won’t usually be able to bring a claim for breach of the disciplinary policy itself, any breach of it by your employer will be important evidence in an unfair dismissal claim.

Occasionally a provision in the employee handbook will be deemed to be, or have become, a part of your contract of employment. You can either make your employer follow it through legal proceedings, or bring a breach of contract claim should they not follow it. One common area in which such a dispute may arise is bonuses.

However, this is a grey and complex area. If you think it may apply to you, we’d recommend taking legal advice.

Things your employer should include in the staff handbook

There are some policies your employer must include in the handbook, and others which are simply good practice:

An introduction to the company

This is not legally required but it is a useful way for your employer to set the tone of the workplace. This section may include details of company culture, values, objectives and their mission statement.

Employee standing on nail during accident at work

Disciplinary and grievance policies and procedures must be in staff handbook

These are legal requirements. The handbook should clearly set out the procedure to be followed if you have a grievance against your employer or if you are the subject of a disciplinary. The procedure should include a provision for appealing against a decision and should comply with the guidelines set out by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS).

In addition, the employee handbook should also make provision for dealing with capability and performance issues.

Health and safety

If your employer has five or more employees, they are required by law to have a written statement of general policy on health and safety. This should include details of health and safety representatives, cover the use of equipment and how work can be completed safely.

Equal opportunities and anti-discrimination

Your employee handbook should include your employer’s policy in relation to harassment and discrimination based on gender, trans status, marital status, race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, religion or age. It should also include information about their policy in respect of equal opportunities, such as training, promotion or recruitment.

Data protection

It is a legal requirement for your employer to have arrangements in place to ensure safe storage and processing of data relating to employees. Details of your employer’s data protection policy should include how the company process and handle data, and your rights regarding access to data – including restriction of access to sensitive information.

You also have a legal right to what is known as a ‘privacy notice’. This sets out the way your personal data is used, who it will be shared with and how long it will be kept, and how to lodge a complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Pregnant employee during maternity leave

Time off and absence

There are multiple circumstances in which you may reasonably take time off. Your staff handbook may include details of your employer’s policies on annual leave, maternity, paternity and adoption leave, time off for sickness, dependants, or compassionate and bereavement leave. It could also include details of absence management, such as reporting requirements and any procedures for managing short- and long-term absence.

Email, internet and social media policy

If your employer monitors staff activities, they often provide details of their policy in respect of this. Your employer may set out their expectations and requirements in respect of staff use of email, the internet and social media (including both company accounts and, if necessary, personal accounts) as well as the consequences of breaching protocol.

Drug and alcohol policy

You may find your staff handbook sets out your employer’s expectations in respect of alcohol and drugs when driving, at work or at work social functions. If your employer carries out random testing, this must at least be mentioned in the privacy statement section of the handbook.

Flexible working, home working and termination policies

As home working and flexi-time is an increasingly common reality, your staff handbook may include details of your employer’s approach to these circumstances. This should include details of time recording and reporting, as well as health and safety. The staff handbook should also include a policy and procedure in respect of retirement or redundancy.

Female employee working from home as agreed in staff handbook

Whistle-blowing and bribery

If your employer is a local authority, a large bank, building society or insurance company, a plc or US listed company, they must provide details of their whistle-blowing policy in the handbook. Employers should also consider the benefits of including a Bribery Act policy dealing with the acceptance of gifts, etc.

Get to know your staff handbook

The list of what could or should be included in the staff handbook is extensive. It will largely depend on the circumstances of, and industry sector inhabited by, your employer.

As an employee, the staff handbook is an important document that you should familiarise yourself with and check periodically for any changes. Combined with your contract of employment, your staff handbook should nearly always be your first port of call when any work-related issue arises.

Have a query about the content of your employer’s staff handbook? Unsure about the legality of some of its provisions? Please get in touch with us today.

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