Manual Matters: 5 Ways an Employee Handbook Benefits Your Practice

The building that houses your veterinary practice needs a solid foundation. Read on for five essential ways an employee handbook can improve your practice’s operations.

A well-thought-out employee manual is one of the best investments a practice can make.

The building that houses your veterinary practice needs a solid foundation to help keep it structurally sound and safe for the people within its walls—and practice operations can benefit significantly from having an employee handbook for remarkably similar reasons. A well-constructed employee handbook provides structure to practice operations, as it shares philosophies, policies, procedures, expectations, employee benefits, and more. It describes practice ethics regarding employees, clients, and patients, and defines how to interact with integrity with others in your profession and community.

Here are five essential ways that an employee handbook can improve your practice’s operations.

1. Eliminates Arbitrary or Ad Hoc Decisions

An employee handbook is an essential communications tool, and it helps you manage employees more efficiently by establishing clear policies and procedures. It aids new-employee orientation and outlines expectations for both employees and management and, when done properly, should prevent managers from creating arbitrary or unfair policies on the fly. Without an established handbook, it can feel impossible for a manager to maintain standardized personnel policies.

This is especially true for busy veterinary professionals, who often wear many hats within a practice. Most veterinary hospitals are small businesses in which a hospital manager handles many other responsibilities outside of just HR. The creation of an employee handbook can save countless hours of mulling over the many employee situations that can arise in any workplace and prevent frustration and unnecessary turnover for your team. With an employee handbook, you already have a considered policy in place that can be referred to again and again as issues arise. Establishing ground rules and expectations strengthens your hospital’s staff relations. The handbook supports this function by communicating your expectations and providing basic information to employees concerning the terms, conditions, and benefits of employment.

Think back to the list of employee complaints your practice received in the last year. Many of the common employee complaints reflect the need for certain policies to be adjusted and revised, and the employee handbook is the perfect vehicle for these changes.

Open your handbook with a welcome section that sets the tone of harmony and respect that you want to prevail in your practice’s employee relations.

2. Establishes a Healthy Team Culture

Developing and maintaining a positive, inclusive culture helps drive the success of any business. Having a harmonious culture helps improve employee recruitment and retention, team morale, employee engagement, and productivity. Stating important aspects of the practice culture in the employee handbook helps clarify employee expectations and define the commitment of the business to maintaining a diverse, inclusive, positive culture. Your practice’s employee handbook should communicate culture in several areas, including the welcome section and the statement of your practice’s mission, vision, and core values.

Open your handbook with a welcome section that sets the tone of harmony and respect that you want to prevail in your practice’s employee relations. New employees need to feel welcome and appreciated, and your handbook can help establish a good first impression and the foundation of a long working relationship. The first section of your handbook can and should reinforce their decision to join your hospital.

Follow up your welcome section with a statement that outlines your practice’s mission, vision, and core values. A mission statement explains why the practice exists. It generally comprises one or two sentences that describe what the practice does and its overall goal. The mission statement communicates the practice’s purpose, philosophy, and direction to clients, employees, vendors, and all other stakeholders. A vision statement describes what the practice’s leaders want it to be in the future. It should create a mental image of what the practice will look like if it achieves its strategic goals. Ideally, the vision statement should inspire and motivate employees. Core values are words or statements that define how the practice will conduct business. They may also be referred to as the practice’s guiding principles, beliefs, promises, commitments, or values. Core values define how all employees will interact with each other and with clients.

3. Sets the Stage for Positive Client Relationships

In addition to your team culture, a handbook’s code of conduct establishes how your employees interact with the clients and pets that are essential to your operations. These policy statements outline the type of behavior that is expected of all team members. A code of conduct is particularly important for veterinary hospitals because of the veterinarian-client-patient relationship. Your code of conduct should emphasize the need for professionalism, ethics, and integrity in taking care of patients and serving clients and the community, as well as in all communications and operations of the hospital.

A social media policy is another essential ingredient for setting the tone between employees and clients. Your social media policy should notify employees of whether they can identify themselves as employees of the hospital. If they do, anything they say in social media may, rightly or wrongly, be imputed to the hospital. To the extent the employee is viewed by others as representing your organization, any recommendations or referrals made may be regarded by others as endorsements by your practice. Therefore, you may want to require that employees issue disclaimers stating that the views they express on their blogs or other sites are their own and not their employer’s. The policy should also address who is authorized to use the business’s social media accounts and what employees can say about the hospital and its clients. The policy should cover topics such as employee productivity, proprietary information, terms of service, and copyright issues.

Stating important aspects of the practice culture in the employee handbook helps clarify employee expectations and define the commitment of the business to maintaining a diverse, inclusive, positive culture.

4. Defends the Practice Against Legal Claims

A manual establishes ground rules, ones that facilitate your ability to onboard employees, educate and guide them, and treat them fairly and with dignity—and when policies and procedures are consistently followed, this also helps to legally protect your practice.

For example, numerous organizations have issued detailed rules and regulations about employees and the workplace that must be followed. These include the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Department of Labor, National Labor Relations Board, Internal Revenue Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Drug Enforcement Agency, and Environmental Protection Agency, among others.

Often, these agencies require the creation of compliance or disclosure policies, and the employee manual is an ideal location to publish them. Compiling every policy in one central location helps to ensure that all employees have copies of each policy; and if a violation occurs, it may be judged less harshly when governing bodies are shown that the alleged conduct was going against formalized practice policies.

The creation of an employee handbook can save countless hours of mulling over the many employee situations that can arise in any workplace and prevent frustration and unnecessary turnover for your team.

5. Ensures Your Team Is Safe and Equipped for Emergencies

As an employer, you are responsible for providing a safe, healthy environment that complies with all safety and health laws and regulations; providing personal protective equipment; providing first aid; adequately explaining the hazards of the workplace; and establishing and documenting emergency procedures to respond to accidents, injuries, emergencies, or disasters. Your team is responsible for learning and applying safety rules and policies, cooperating in keeping the hospital safe, and promptly reporting hazardous or unsafe conditions, incidents that could have resulted in injury or damage, and all accidents or injuries. All responsibilities should be outlined and documented in the workplace safety section of an employee handbook.

The practice’s safety policy must be founded on basic principles such as the following:

  • Ensuring compliance with federal, state, and industry-wide laws, rules, and regulations related to safety
  • Requiring staff to comply and cooperate with safety and health rules as a condition of employment
  • Conducting regular meetings to provide education and training on current safety practices
  • Conducting regular, at least yearly, inspections to identify and eliminate unsafe working conditions or practices
  • Conducting prompt and thorough investigations of every accident to determine the cause and develop preventive measures

In addition to a general safety policy, hospitals need to establish specific, detailed plans for occupational safety (including but not limited to personal protective equipment, noise exposure, and hazardous materials) and evacuation or emergency preparedness plans in the event of a fire or natural disaster such as a tornado, earthquake, hurricane, or flood. And as we all experience the COVID-19 crisis, the importance of establishing and communicating safety and emergency plans has never been more urgent.

The reality is that creating a well-thought-out employee manual is one of the best investments a practice can make. Resources spent on its formulation will be recouped as your practice benefits from lower regulatory risk and better employee relations, which will allow your return on investment to surpass the initial outlay. Plus, creating a manual naturally causes you to think about your employees and the workplace in a thoughtful and disciplined way, which will help to reveal ideas on how to improve practice efficiency and quality of work. 

Adapted from the AAHA Guide to Creating an Employee Handbook, Fourth Edition

HT_05.pngWant more expert HR guidance for your practice? The AAHA Guide to Creating an Employee Handbook has new and updated sample policies covering the most recent developments in federal law and human resource management, and a customizable handbook to get you started. Get your copy now!

Photo credits: Luckykot/iStock via Getty Images Plus, Vasyl Dolmatov/iStock via Getty Images Plus, Kateryna Kukota/iStock via Getty Images Plus, Morsa Images/E+ via Getty Images

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