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Winging Your Company Policy? Get It Down on Silicon

June 16, 1997|KIM KOMANDO

Small-business owners, especially entrepreneurs who have grown accustomed to flying by the seat of their pants, often don't give much thought to employee policies. Rules are simply made up when a situation arises.

But this approach is asking for trouble. A little foresight and planning--assisted, perhaps, by a good software program and a few Web sites--can save a lot of headaches down the road.

There are many issues to consider when dealing with employees. Finding good people is always difficult, and keeping them is often equally challenging, as is seeing to it that they toe the line.

Most good employers, when hiring someone new, will provide at least a basic overview of company policies and procedures. But they may overlook issues. For example, are the rules of the new-hire probationary period clearly defined? Is it acceptable for a staff member to take a part-time job at your competitor's office? When does sick time begin to accrue? What are the disciplinary procedures and grounds for termination?

With more and more companies providing personal computers, expensive software, e-mail accounts and voicemail, a whole new set of issues arises. Is it acceptable for employees to use company e-mail accounts to send e-mail to friends and family during business hours? Can a personal computer be used during off-hours to write resumes or do schoolwork? Are employees aware that the company may monitor their computer usage and voicemail messages?

What you don't know about employment law can definitely hurt you, and unless you're an attorney, drafting an employee manual without any guidance can actually pose more risk than not having a policy manual at all. A lawyer familiar with your state's laws should check whatever manual you pass out to employees.

You can save a lot of money, however, by asking a lawyer to review an employee policy manual, rather than creating one from scratch. And in doing part of the process yourself, you'll probably learn a lot. Frankly, I didn't realize how vulnerable my company was and how many issues were never addressed until we came up with a 50-page policy manual.

To draft it, we used KnowledgePoint's $99 Policies Now 5.0 ([800] 727-1133), a software program that covers about 80 vital employment policy issues. I was a little reluctant to give up my afternoon to work on a policy manual. But as our staff grew, so did the occasions when a manager and I needed to confer about an issue, check with a lawyer and draft a memo to distribute to all personnel.

The software wouldn't install at first, but it finally worked with a little tweaking on my part and help from the company's technical support department. Once it was installed, coming up with the draft of our manual was painless.

Policies Now uses a simple question-and-answer format. The program presents a list of recommended policies and you select the ones you want, providing information about how your company handles particular situations. Sometimes all you need to do is accept the policy as one to incorporate in your manual.

For example, one question asks whether you have a designated smoking area and whether the policy to be enacted would apply to both employees and visitors. The attendance and punctuality section, however, offers only editable suggested text for your manual: "Poor attendance and excessive tardiness are disruptive. Either may lead to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment." Yeah, that's right.

Policies Now offers advice but with the disclaimer that you should check with experienced legal counsel to assure compliance with all applicable laws. The program relies on federal and California state labor laws for its suggested policy text, but it recommends that even California-based companies give the results of the manual that the program creates to a lawyer to review.

It would be great if Policies Now offered the choice to select the state where your office is located and then complete the policies based on state-specific information. When a lawyer reviewed our manual, he commented that while some California laws are applicable in my state (Arizona), it's a good thing we checked. He found discrepancies between what Policies Now recommended and some Arizona labor laws.

It is important not only to check the legality of your manual, but also to keep your software and manual current. You can purchase semiannual software updates and a quarterly newsletter from KnowledgePoint ($79 for one year, $159 for three years). If you're a busy small-business owner, you're better off focusing your time on your company and letting a lawyer review your manual yearly.

You can supplement your employee policy knowledge on the Internet. For links to state-specific law information, go to The Labor Department's Small Business Handbook ( is a terrific site for employment and small-business information.

Drop by the Labor Policy Assn. ( to learn about current employment issues facing Congress.


Kim Komando is a Fox TV host, syndicated talk radio host and founder of the Komputer Klinic on America Online (keyword KOMANDO). She can be reached via e-mail at

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