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Resource Highlight: Littler’s “How to Craft an Employee Handbook Outside the United States”

For U.S.-based organizations with foreign offices, a common question is how to implement HR policies in a multi-faceted cultural and legal landscape. Exporting the traditional “U.S.-style” employee handbook is often not the best solution. To this end, Littler, a multi-national labor and employment law firm, has just published an excellent resource entitled “How to Craft an Employee Handbook Outside the United States or Whether to Issue One at All.” While the entire publication is worth a read for any organization with employees subject to foreign laws and regulations (and can be downloaded here), here are some of the main points.

The U.S. Employment At-Will Doctrine Is Unique, Creating Challenges For a One-Size-Fits-All Global Handbook

The guide starts out by explaining why organizations may meet challenges when they try to translate a U.S.-style employee handbook to a foreign office. According to the author, Donald C. Dowling, Jr., one of the main reasons is the uniqueness of the U.S. concept of at-will employment. The at-will doctrine maintains that employees are not hired for any specific contract term, but instead, are free to quit, be terminated or let go for any reason (or no reason at all). This idea reigns supreme in the U.S. thanks to our largely de-regulated labor and employment system. While there are notable exceptions (anti-discrimination laws, FMLA, etc.), for the most part, U.S. employers have wide latitude to choose and terminate their employees. And the idea of at-will employment informs most standard U.S.-based employee handbooks, which aim to set expectations for employee work.

But the U.S. system is largely foreign to the rest of the world. This in turn affects whether U.S.-based employee handbooks can effectively translate into foreign fields. Differences in workplace regulations, employment contracts, and the enforceability of disclaimers in handbooks may create issues. The Littler publication does a great job of providing practical examples of how this tension may create problems in practice.

Local Jurisdiction Employee Handbooks Are Possible, But Come With Challenges

Because of the different laws and regulations in different countries, a one-size-fits-all approach is likely to be flawed. One option that is often pursued, according to the guide, is customization of the U.S.-based handbook for each locality (or having a single master handbook with local riders/addenda).

But, as the author explains, challenges to this approach abound. For one, this approach is time and resource intensive, requiring a three-step process:

First, draft a single core template for all the local handbooks (or a master template framework for the riders/addenda) . . . . Next, involve overseas in-house HR to tailor local versions of that template (or riders/addenda) for each respective jurisdiction, filling in the blanks in the template . . . . Finally, back at headquarters, edit the local handbooks (or the riders/addenda) so each one makes sense and aligns with the others, section by section.1

Even once this process is complete, issues may arise in the implementation, and the author explains that the challenges previously discussed remain and are joined by other issues that he identifies as sloppy alignment, launch logistics, and challenges in issuing updates.

Because of the work involved in implementing a U.S.-style employee handbook abroad, the author notes that not many multi-national organizations have been able to do it successfully. Indeed, many just go without such a handbook abroad. But there are often good business reasons for wanting to have a handbook, so the resource then turns to providing practical suggestions to meet those goals while avoiding some of the pitfalls previously discussed.

Alternatives to Global Employee Handbooks

After laying out the challenges with both importing a U.S.-style employee handbook abroad and creating country-specific handbooks for each unique jurisdiction, the guide outlines several practical alternatives and explains how each might solve an organization’s problems.

Global “Welcome Booklet”

If the goal of an employee handbook is more to communicate the overall goals and vision of the organization, this can be accomplished through more informal means. A Global “Welcome Booklet” is a “publication that explains for new hires and staff—worldwide—big-picture topics like the organization’s history, culture, values, goals, and business priorities.”2

Global Code of Conduct or Ethics

Because things like business codes of conduct or ethics may be more universally accepted, emphasis on these policies may be permissible. Rather than issuing a comprehensive handbook, codes of conduct or ethical policies that are more widely-accepted might be emphasized instead.

Aligned Individual Employment Agreements

In countries where detailed employment contracts are the norm, organizations might integrate the concepts that would typically go into a U.S.-style employee handbook into individual employment agreements. The author suggests that this could be done effectively by creating a template for each jurisdiction.

Global HR Practices Audit

If the reason that headquarters wants a global handbook is to get a better handle on its own overseas HR offerings, a better strategy would be to perform an HR practices audit and obtain that information.

Global Employer Handbook

Rather than focusing on an employee-facing handbook, consider creating an “employer” handbook: “a top-down, internal (not employee-facing) aligned-practices manifesto addressed to local HR staff worldwide, explaining the organization’s core values, its basic HR offerings and its preferred approach to common HR challenges.”3

Conclusion

The Littler guide, “How to Craft an Employee Handbook Outside the United States or Whether to Issue One at All” is a practical resource for navigating the minefield of employment handbooks over multiple countries. It provides a nice overview of the issues and suggests some practical alternatives that might work well for a variety of organizations.

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1 Donald C. Dowling, Jr., How to Craft an Employee Handbook Outside the United States or Whether to Issue One at All, Littler (Sept. 2017) at 7.
2 Id. at 9.
3 Id. at 10.
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