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No legalese in this handbook

Work Rules

But would CEO Sam Zell's breezy new Tribune employee manual hold up in court?

January 17, 2008|Molly Selvin | Times Staff Writer

How much should a company's culture reflect its chief executive, especially one who prides himself on being a blunt and innovative -- some might say abrasive -- businessman?

If you're new Tribune Co. CEO Sam Zell, the answer seems to be: A lot. At least that was the feeling workers got Wednesday with the distribution of a new employee handbook, a document that's nothing like the mind-numbing, lawyered gobbledygook in most corporate manuals. Consider the opening:

"Rule #1: Use your best judgment."

"Rule #2: See Rule 1."

In an e-mail to employees, Zell -- who took over the parent of the Los Angeles Times last month after taking the company private -- described the handbook as shorter and more direct than its turgid predecessor, reflecting trust "in your judgment, and in each other."

"I don't think a lawyer got their hands on it, and that's fantastic," said Mark Mehler, co-founder of CareerXroads, a New Jersey recruiting and consulting firm.

The question is: Is that a good thing?

As companies compete for talent and customers, executives say they seek more open communication with employees, hoping to encourage them to innovate and solve problems.

But the plain language and direct, almost jocular tone of the handbook -- unusual in the corporate world -- may make it a legal minefield, some employment lawyers said.

At 3,663 words, the new Tribune manual is about a third as long as the dense, 11,519-word edition it replaced.

And in place of words like "pursuant to," "required minimums" and "appropriate documentation," the Zell model uses plain language -- and jokes:

* "2.5. Discrimination based on gender, age, race, religion, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, disability or any other characteristic not related to performance, ability or attitude, protected by federal or state law, or not protected (such as inability to tell a joke, the occasional poor wardrobe choice or bad hair day), is strictly prohibited."

* "4.5. Making the building too hot, banging on trash can lids or loud bagpipe music are annoyances you can complain about," but such actions don't constitute harassment on the basis of protected characteristics.

* "7.1. If you use or abuse alcohol or drugs and fail to perform the duties required by your job acceptably, you are likely to be terminated. See Rule 1. Coming to work drunk is bad judgment."

* "7.2. If you do not use or abuse alcohol or drugs and fail to perform the duties required by your job acceptably, you are likely to be terminated."

The manual is a departure from traditional employee handbooks, Mehler said, which "since the Stone Age have either been written by the summer intern or the newest employee in the company." Then they're turned over to company lawyers. They're guidelines, no more, no less, he said, typically pulled out by "the supervisor on the third shift when there's no manager around."

The new version "reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously, and to have fun," Zell wrote employees. It also outlines "our company's new core values," which he described as "a performance-oriented culture."

The guy at the top can definitely change the corporate culture, Mehler said. He recalled working with a biotech company that, under a new owner eager to improve sales, began to require senior managers to turn in a check-off sheet before a weekly staff meeting. Completing the sheet required them to visit with staff throughout the building -- including the maintenance shed, where beer for the Friday-afternoon happy hour was stored.

The policy generated higher sales, Mehler believes, because "employees felt they were part of a team."

San Francisco lawyer Mark Schickman applauded the Tribune handbook for eliminating legalese. "But in an effort to be brief and funny, they've made a lot of mistakes," he said.

Among its nine "core values," the manual encourages employees to "Question authority and push back if you do not like the answer. You will earn respect, and not get into trouble for asking tough questions."

To Schickman, who represents employers, that means if you try to terminate someone for being argumentative and insubordinate, the employee could argue that he or she was simply questioning authority and pushing back.

Ditto for core value No. 6, "Take Intelligent Risk." An employee terminated for not using good judgment (Rule #1) could sue on the basis that he or she was just taking an intelligent risk, Schickman said.

The new handbook is the handiwork of Randy Michaels, Tribune CEO for interactive and broadcasting, who believes it will reduce liability.

He acknowledged that terms like "intelligent risk" and "good judgment" are subjective but insisted: "The more policies you have, the more opportunities there are for someone who is very unhappy to sue.

"I'm amazed and amused at what lawyers get businesspeople to do," he said. "I think we'll have fewer legal problems with plain English and common sense than with pages and pages of rules."

--

molly.selvin@latimes.com

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