The Practice Handbook – Inconvenience or Essential Resource?

A practice handbook is all too often seen as a series of template documents; sometimes found mass produced online, sometimes borrowed from other businesses. It is often rolled out to employees without a huge deal of consideration given to the contents. In spite of this, a well-written handbook contains crucial policies that overarch the values of your business and can prove to be an important resource not just when handling employee issues but also to communicate the true principals of your business to your employees.

What should be included in the handbook will vary practice to practice. Generally the policies that are chosen will not form part of the employee’s contract of employment but rather set out rules, procedures and guidelines for the practice’s employees to follow as a result of their implied duty to follow lawful orders. The distinction is important, as where the contents do not form part of the employment contract, changes can be made in line with current business practices without seeking agreement from the staff. Practice owners should however be aware of the potential for such policies to become contractual particularly through implied incorporation – usually as a result of custom and practice. A properly drafted handbook will take such risks into account.

Employers in the UK have very little in the way of legal requirements to provide a handbook to employees. Perhaps this is why it is not given as much thought as other tasks. However, there is certain information that must be provided to employees as a minimum. Much of this will be set out in a statement of engagement or the employment contract but these documents may sometimes refer to the handbook. This is a practical and common way of dealing with that secondary information which must be supplied to employees. Examples of this would be disciplinary and grievance procedures, absence policy, health and safety statement and pensions information. These, among other matters, are considered below.

Disciplinary procedures
Unless set out in the statement of engagement, the handbook must set out any disciplinary rules and any procedures for submitting a grievance. A thorough policy here will provide a comprehensive framework within which owners can work with employees to maintain acceptable standards of conduct and encourage improvement where necessary. Where owners are not taking on responsibility for disciplinary procedures, it will allow practice managers the confidence to make the right business decision in the knowledge that they are following the correct steps.

The policy should accurately set out the procedures for disciplinary decision making and outline the appeals process. Generally these processes will be in line with the Acas Code recommendations and best practice for handling discipline. Practice owners may then wish to include additional detail to ensure specific matters relevant to the practice are taken into account.

Grievance procedures
As with the disciplinary procedure, the steps that the practice will take on submission of a grievance should be set out in the handbook if not fully dealt with in the statement of engagement. Owners are under an implied duty to afford a reasonable opportunity to its employees to obtain redress of any grievance.

An employer will usually want to build in a certain amount of flexibility in dealing with grievances so as to allow the procedure to fit the many different situations in which a grievance may arise. It is therefore important that the written procedure is expressed in terms that allow flexibility while staying within the requirements of the Acas Code, unless there is good reason to depart from it.

The Acas Code provides assistance by setting out minimum standards, which will be required to demonstrate good practice. The minimum that must legally be set out in a written grievance procedure is:

  • The person to whom the grievance should be submitted
  • The manner of submitting the grievance
  • Further steps that will then be taken

Consideration of the Acas Code is an important factor for both the disciplinary and the grievance procedures in particular, as an unreasonable failure by the employer to follow the recommendations of the Acas Code may, in some cases, result in additional compensation being awarded to an employee in an unfair dismissal claim or certain other types of tribunal claim.

Pensions information
Generally this will now follow the auto-enrolment provisions. Regardless of this, full details of the pension scheme should be given to employees whether or not the practice operates standard auto-enrolment pensions or additional pension schemes. In addition to this, owners may need to deal with what happens to pension payments in other situations, such as maternity/paternity or whilst employees are absent due to sickness.

Health and safety
Where an employer has five or more employees, it is a requirement of the Health and Safety at Work Act to have a written statement of the company’s health and safety policy. Such statement is often incorporated within the practice handbook. The policy should reflect the nature of the workplace and the outcome of the employer’s risk assessment. Due to the significant regulation around dental practices, this forms a key part of the handbook.

A written policy ensures that both the employer and its workforce are clear about their respective responsibilities and will assist with the practice ensuring it is compliant with health and safety laws. Ultimately, making these responsibilities clear will create a safer working environment which can only be conducive to productivity.

Absence and sickness
A sickness absence policy can fulfil a number of purposes. It sets out sick pay arrangements and the requirements for notifying and providing evidence of incapacity. It is a legal requirement that terms and conditions relating to incapacity due to sickness or injury are given to the employee in writing. The policy should also provide a procedure for managing longer-term incapacity, including obtaining medical evidence, considering alternatives for rehabilitating the employee into work and ultimately providing a fair procedure for dismissal where this is the appropriate course of action.

Recommended policies
Whilst not required by law, these additional policies will serve to either assist in showing compliance with more general laws affecting the business or ensure that staff members are clear of what is expected of them whilst they are working.

Matters such as equal opportunities and anti-bullying statements will go some way to demonstrating what is and is not acceptable behaviour within the working environment. Should formal action be taken against you, this will act as an indicator of compliant behaviour in taking a proactive approach to such matters. This should however not be considered an alternative to thorough and adequate training on issues such as discrimination, harassment and victimisation.

Of particular concern in the current climate will be setting out rule surrounding the use of electronic devices and, in a wider sense, the use of social media by employees. Clearly, staff need the ability to utilise a variety of IT resources but with this comes significant business risk. A successful policy should consider the following risks:

  • Potential unauthorised disclosure of confidential information.
  • Infringement of third-party intellectual property rights.
  • Unlawful harassment of employees, especially where explicit material is downloaded or sent by email.
  • Reputational damage from inappropriate emails.
  • Time-wasting and loss of productivity.

It is highly likely the majority of staff in the workplace will use some form of social media. Improper use of such platforms will reflect poorly on the practice and could impact profitability. Conversely, this can prove to be a useful driver of business by marketing to a much wider audience than may otherwise be achieved. A well drafted social media policy should consider the attitudes of the practice and, particularly where use it encouraged, should put in place detailed guidelines for this use in addition to generalised policy.

Data protection is at the forefront of the minds many owners (and employees for that matter) due to the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulations last May. Processing personal data will be lawful only if, and to the extent that, at least one of the conditions in article 6 of the GDPR. In addition, employers can only process personal data for employment purposes if it is necessary and, when the processing is carried out, the employer has an appropriate policy in place. The data protection policy is also a suitable place to provide a privacy statement to staff members, notifying them about how their personal data is handled. This policy should be carefully drafted and tailored to the actual or anticipated data collect, privacy and security procedures of the practice.

An essential resource
The handbook should be considered a vital document as it:

  • sets out what is expected of employees and deals with the consequences of not meeting these expectations.
  • helps to reduce workplace disputes (whether between staff or against the practice) by ensuring everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet. However, always ensure you avoid policies and procedures you do not adhere to.
  • reduces the time owners or practice managers spend on dealing with staffing issues, such as disputes and explaining standards to new starters.
  • provides an effective method of communicating to new staff members their working conditions, benefits, annual leave, dress code, pay rises or reviews, training.
  • is required for or assists with complying with employment laws and can be a beneficial legal defence against an employee claim.

Whilst the above is by no means an exhaustive list of the policies, it provides an overview of some of the issues which should be considered when thinking about implementing or updating a practice handbook.