How to Create and Refine the Employee Handbook for Your Veterinary Practice
Your employee handbook is likely one of the first documents a new hire receives when they come on board. It acts as an anchor, partly as an account of the practice describing who you are and who you want to be, and partly as a reference guide for how you expect your teams to conduct themselves. It's not just for new hires though; it's also a great reference to go back to when you're trying to resolve a staff question, or even considering how to help a client while upholding your practice's values.
You might be surprised by how often you go back to your handbook for support, so taking the time to create it and update it over time is important. Here are some tips on building and editing your handbook.
Building Your Handbook
Creating a handbook from scratch is a major undertaking, and you might find it's best done by a human resource professional. For my practices, we used a consultant to create the initial draft. If this isn't an option for you, there are some great employee handbook templates available for free online. Using one as your starting point will help ensure you capture the most important legal sections.
However you get started, there are some nonnegotiables you'll want to include. Here are some of the most important things I've included in my handbook. Please note: I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice—these are only insights from my experience as a veterinary practice manager. To ensure you meet all legal requirements, it is best to consult your practice's attorney.
For me, this was one of the most fun parts of the document to write. The welcome statement is where you can tell the story of your practice: how your practice came to be and what your management team is striving toward. It's a great place to include your mission statement and provide details of your vision and how you plan to implement it. This section should also demonstrate why your practice is a fun and inviting place to work.
A majority of the employment basics section should reflect legal requirements, so I found this to be mostly boilerplate. This section should describe that your employees as at-will (check your state's at-will status) and cover your compliance with Equal Employment Opportunity, Americans with Disabilities Act, work authorization and employment classification policies.
Providing guidelines on how you expect employees to handle themselves in the practice, and in relation to one another, is an opportunity to show you value your team's safety. This section covers substance abuse, workplace violence, discrimination, and your progressive discipline policy. In my practices, we also use this section to describe each employee's responsibility to report and the support they'll receive.
Workplace guidelines will likely form the bulk of your handbook and include sections as disparate as attendance and breaks to computer use and confidential information policies. I recommend you use this part of the handbook to provide day-to-day guidance your employees can use as a starting point when they have questions. Even though this describes normal operations I advise against including any medical protocol information as that may change more frequently than the rest of your manual.
Employee benefits are a great way to let your practice stand out from others, so take the opportunity to describe them in detail, focusing on everything you offer so no one misses out.
Time Away from Work
Time off is important to all of us, but managing it can be a headache for practice managers. Having clear and transparent rules will help your employees know when and how they can take time off, how to deal with sickness or injury, and assure them there is a process to cover shifts when needed.
Signature and Acceptance
Whether you include a signature and acceptance section or record it on a separate document, your employees should acknowledge receipt and agree to the rules within your employee handbook. This is also a great place to remind them you're excited they're joining the team and reiterate your core values.
Pro Tips For Editing
A good employee handbook is a living document—it will change to meet new regulations or to reflect changes in your practice's philosophy. Incremental changes to your document can make it harder to read though, so keep the following in mind:
- Don't duplicate information: Repeating information in multiple places means you can end up with contradictory information. For example, if your time-off request form describes the rules for taking PTO, but it's also included in the handbook, you must remember to update both when you make changes. Try to remove these duplicates and create a single master that everything else references.
- Use a consistent tone: It can be jarring to read a document that changes tone drastically midway through. This is especially problematic if you're editing a template or working with a version written by someone else. Determine the voice you want to use before you start and make your edits to maintain it consistently.
- Use version control: One of the challenges with a living document is knowing which version was in force at a particular time. Use change tracking, which is provided by most word processors, and save redline and blackline versions of each revision that you issue to staff. Include the date and version number on the signature page to make it clear which version a team member agreed to.
- Remove rules you don't enforce: If you have rules that you no longer enforce, take them out of the handbook. If you only selectively enforce a rule it undermines the handbook and tells staff they can choose what they want to follow.
- Have the document reviewed: Given this document may form the basis of dispute resolutions in your practice, you should consider getting a professional review of your final document. An experienced attorney or HR professional may spot areas where you don't meet the requirements of local or federal law and help you fix those issues.
As you create and refine your employee handbook, take your time to make sure that everything you need covered is included. You might even enlist the help of ChatGPT as you get started. Be sure to consult your practice attorney to ensure that your handbook meets the relevant legal requirements for your city and state.