by Sally Colby

An employee handbook might not be the most fascinating thing employees will read, but it’s important. Dan Dalton, Three Rivers Program Manager, PASA, said an effective employee handbook is part of a human resources strategy for managing and administering employment.

Dalton quotes University of Vermont extension specialist Vern Grubinger who said this about employee handbooks: ‘A high quality employee handbook makes a statement to your workforce that they are important to the success of your business, and it explains their roles and responsibilities in achieving that success … a good employee handbook can help avoid workplace problems while enhancing the productivity of your workforce.’

“Included within that are roles, responsibilities and metrics of success; what should and should not be done; and communicating your farm policies,” said Dalton. “It can also be a strong legal tool.”

There are many ways to develop a handbook, and the process can be simple or complicated. Most handbooks change over time so if you’re working on one for the first time, start with a simple version. Dalton said farm owners who need an employee handbook immediately can usually borrow one from a farm that’s similar in size, equipment and labor needs. “The other way is to use a template handbook from extension,” he said. “But there is no shortcut for doing the meaningful work of articulating your own expectations and needs on your farm.”

A simple introduction should acquaint employees with the farm, and can include farm history and the farm’s mission statement. The next section is management style, and should portray the farm organization as a business and define owners and supervisors.

The section on general farm information applies to everyone on the farm. Include the location of emergency medical information such as who to notify in the event of a medical emergency and other emergency contacts. Employees should know the locations and how to use safety measures such as an eyewash station and fire extinguishers. Include the farm’s smoking (or non-smoking) policy and how sanitation and safety issues are addressed. Depending on the farm, a section on appropriate dress for working conditions should be included, especially for those new to farm work.

Personnel policies are the core of most employee handbooks. This section includes work hours, days off, break times, duration of breaks, overtime, compensation and how work time is calculated or recorded (time sheet) and pay period. Note why and when pay might be increased and deductions from employees’ paychecks. Include information about a probationary period, how employee performance might be linked to raises or bonuses, how employee performance is evaluated, who conducts that evaluation and how often performance is evaluated.

Employees should know where to park their personal vehicle and where to store, prepare and/or eat meals, take breaks, smoke and make phone calls. Have a clear policy regarding the use of cell phones and how personal phones and other small electronic devices can be used. Is music permitted while working, and are employees allowed to use earbuds? Make sure any policy regarding electronics is clearly defined and that employees understand it.

A list of clearly defined expectations is critical. If expectations are set and then violated, people become disgruntled; leading to negativity and potential burnout. “If you don’t set expectations, people come in with whatever notions they have and sit with those,” said Dalton. “It’s worth thinking through what your expectations are, and get feedback about what their expectations are of you. Lay it out in the employee handbook and hold each other accountable for expectations.”

If employees will be operating any motorized equipment, state that training is required, then provide the appropriate training and emphasize safety. Employees should be able to demonstrate they can safely operate each piece of equipment prior to using it on the farm. If the employee will be handling any farm chemicals, outline who is allowed to apply chemicals, the appropriate equipment for application and any required PPE. Be aware that the Worker Protection Standard applies to all farms.

Define work start and end times whenever possible, and make sure employees know who to contact if they will be late or absent. Define vacation, personal time and sick time. If the farm provides paid leave, how much notice should an employee provide? If there is no paid leave, be sure to clearly state the farm’s policy.

Outline benefits, including when pay is distributed and in what form. If insurance is provided, what makes an employee eligible? Communicate laws that cover workers compensation and make sure employees know that any on the job injury or illness must be reported immediately. List the person to whom they should report injury or illness, and stress the importance of completing paperwork on time.

Be sure to include a section on prohibited behaviors. “List the actions that are grounds for disciplinary action,” said Dalton. “Any steps that might be taken, and articulate termination of employment expectations.” A list of prohibited behaviors and what action will be taken (such as immediate dismissal) might include drug or alcohol use while on the job, theft, harassment, fighting, intentional damage to equipment, possession of weapons, disregard for safety and insubordination.

Employees should be fully aware of the farm’s conflict resolution policy, including how to report and to whom conflicts are reported. If an employee has a grievance with a policy or action on the farm, what options are available?

Develop and enforce a clear and firm policy regarding photographs taken on the farm and outline it in the handbook. Many accepted and humane animal husbandry practices on farms may be unfamiliar to new employees, so it’s worth the time to ensure ample training to avoid misunderstandings. Employee handbooks often include verbiage stating that employees cannot use social media to express negativity toward the farm.

Marlene van Es, principal attorney in Trellis Legal LLC, has a background in agriculture and provides additional suggestions for employee handbooks. One suggestion is to include a sexual harassment policy. “This has been a hot button issue recently, especially in terms of how employers handle sexual harassment claims,” she said “Employers can be liable for not properly investigating and taking appropriate measures, especially where a manager is not always present. It’s good to have a policy that says what happens if someone reports an incident, sexual or other harassment — who do they report it to and what procedures are taken?”

van Es suggests adopting additional policies if the farm involves agritourism or if children will be present on the farm — will you require background checks?

The end of the handbook is as important as the introduction. A signature page summarizes the handbook and states your right to update and make changes to the handbook. Employees should sign and date a statement that they have read and understand the policies and procedures in the handbook, and understand the handbook is subject to change.

Since employment laws vary by state, van Es suggests drafting an employee handbook and having it reviewed by an attorney prior to distribution.