How an employee handbook can make or break your business

Most independent restaurateurs spend years considering every detail of their dream  restaurant, from the concept to the upholstery and everything in between.

Rarely, however, do those same new restaurant owners think about putting together an employee handbook. It’s understandable—restaurant employee handbooks can be more of a chore than a passion project. Despite this, employee handbooks are a vital asset of any restaurant that plans to be successful and stay out of court.

Read on to learn why employee handbooks are necessary, what they should cover, and how to translate these written regulations into action.

Do you really need a handbook?

Let’s be clear: Yes. Restaurants of all sizes need one. Employee handbooks may seem like a staple of corporate establishments, and there’s a reason for that: big businesses understand the risks of not having them. At a high level, an employee manual serves two critical functions for your business:

  • It outlines the expectations for all staff members.
  • It requires that all managers and employees sign the document confirming they’ve read, understand, and agree to it.

By accomplishing these two goals, as a restaurant owner, the employee handbook will immediately set up the standards employees will be held to and a framework for accountability. Documenting this in a handbook is the first step toward eliminating the inconsistent treatment of employees that lands restaurants in court.

Handbook basics

Remember that every handbook should be different. The specific areas that it covers will depend on the size of your business, where it’s located, what kind of culture you want to create, and what type of restaurant you are opening.

The list below provides some general guidelines for what to include, but you’ll need an employment attorney to customize this framework in order to write a legally sound handbook.

Disclaimer and acknowledgment. There should be a disclaimer at the beginning of your handbook stating that it’s not an employment contract (especially important for states with at-will employment laws). Dedicate one page at the end that requires restaurant   staff  to acknowledge that they have read and understood the policies outlined in your handbook.

General employment policies. This section should cover labor laws such as equal employment opportunity, accommodations for individuals with disabilities, religious accommodation, as well as restaurant-specific topics for what it’s like working at your restaurant, such as having an open-door policy, performance evaluations, and the company’s stance on outside employment.

Timekeeping and payroll. This section will cover all state and federal laws and legal requirements, including the Fair Labor Standards Act, how overtime is paid, payroll deductions, and pay corrections, as well your restaurant’s specific time-keeping procedures, paydays, and consequences for not abiding by any of these rules. This section should also include a policy regarding attendance and punctuality, tip reporting, and laws governing break times.

Benefits. This section outlines any employee benefits such as health insurance or 401(k) programs that your company offers, when employees become eligible for those programs, and where they can find more specific information about each program.

Time off. Here is where you will go over federal- and state-mandated leaves (bereavement, jury duty, time off to vote, Federal Family and Medical Leave Act, Military Leave), holidays the restaurant will be closed for, paid vacation time, and paid sick leave. You should also explain how employees are expected to request time off.

Health, safety, and emergency protocol. This should cover procedures around work-related accidents and injuries, possession of weapons and firearms, OSHA compliance, and how to handle different types of emergencies.

Employee conduct and corrective action. Make sure that this section and the code of conduct are crystal clear. Outline your behavioral expectations of every employee and include a detailed progressive action plan so staff understands consequences and managers understand how to handle employee misconduct.

Anti-harassment and non-discriminatory policy. The goal of this section is to define the company’s stance on harassment and discrimination. Here, you define the type of behavior that qualifies as harassment or discrimination and state who the policy applies to (everyone). It should also outline how employees should report harassment or discrimination in the workplace. Your policy should also explain how the company will handle reports of this nature in order to foster a safe working environment.

Drug testing and substance use. Describe what qualifies as prohibited conduct with regards to drugs and alcohol and what the consequences are for violating the policy. Explain what disciplinary action will be taken.

Separation policy. This section should define voluntary and involuntary termination and explain what is expected of the employee and the employer in each instance.

Other policies. Other topics you may want to consider for handbook inclusion are uniform and appearance standards—any dress codes the restaurant may have, social media policy, confidentiality and nondisclosure, smoking, use of company property, romantic relationships, and conflicts of interest.

Make your handbook your own

An employee handbook is not just a risk management tool. It’s an opportunity to show who you are and what you’re about. It’s an expression of the restaurant  values and a building block of company culture. The handbook can help connect the dots between the mission statement and actual employment practices.

Whether you decide to hire someone else to do the bulk of the writing, work from a restaurant employee handbook template from a professional human resources site, or use customizable software as a guide, make sure that you stay engaged in the process to ensure that your handbook reflects your brand as much as possible.

Regardless of how you decide to complete the actual writing, you’ll need an employment attorney. It’s hard to think of  shelling out precious start-up cash on something like this, but remember that using an outdated or flawed boilerplate template can be just as bad as not having one at all. If the handbook contains any incorrect information, it may not do much to protect you or your staff.

Hiring an employment lawyer with restaurant experience can help get you on the right track. They should be able to answer any legal questions throughout the process and give the document a comprehensive review to ensure that it’s compliant with state rules and regulations.

Put your handbook into action

After finalizing a thoughtful, comprehensive employee handbook you’ll want to put it into action. Proper implementation and documentation to prove that your business follows the rules are crucial steps.

Once you’ve done your due diligence and completed your handbook, you’ll need to:

1. Train managers. Restaurant managers need to understand everything in the handbook so they can answer questions and effectively manage based on its standards. Having documented expectations can prove counterproductive if they are applied unevenly, so make sure that every manager is enforcing the rules stated in your handbook.

2. Train employees. It’s also in everyone’s best interest for all employees to have a clear understanding of everything in your handbook, so simply handing it out and asking them to sign it isn’t enough. During pre-opening training, dedicate at least an hour to go over the most important points of your handbook and require everyone to read it before signing. Giving everyone a quiz on its contents is a good way to ensure that employees understand critical topics. Employees that have a clear understanding of what they should expect to give and to receive from their employer are more comfortable and confident, allowing them to do a better job.

3. Revisit it often. Your handbook has to be a living, breathing document in order for it to remain a useful tool. Employment laws change frequently, as will expectations of  employees in the months and years following your opening. As the restaurant changes, encourage the management team to make suggestions that can help keep standards high. The more bought-in your team is in helping to maintain quality, the better.

While it can seem mundane on the surface, an employee handbook helps make your vision for your restaurant a reality. It will help immensely as you hire, develop, and retain top talent—the best employees always want to have a solid understanding of what is expected of them, and how to achieve it.

See data and expertise in this hiring guide, in partnership with Indeed and Culinary Agents