By the Book

Yours is a small family business. It’s just you, members of your immediate family, perhaps a part-time jeweler and watchmaker, and a few sales associates. The atmosphere is friendly and informal. You have no need for an employee manual.

Not true, says Kate Peterson, president and chief executive officer of Performance Concepts, Montgomery Village, Md. “It doesn’t matter how small you are,” says Peterson. “The minute you hire one person, you’re an employer and you have to act like one.”

Employee manuals are so important that when her firm is hired to assess a business, she says, “The first thing we look for is the book.”

Whether you have one employee or 100, experts and jewelers offer the following reasons for having an employee manual:

Consistency. A manual lets you set standards—for training, treatment of employees, and communication. “What gets people into trouble are not their policies but how consistently they apply them,” Petersen says.

Suzanne DeVries, president of Diamond Staffing Solutions, in Derry, N.H., notes that inconsistent practices can lead to a range of consequences, from mild friction in the store to a full-blown lawsuit. “You don’t want to get into he said/she said/they said/we said,” says DeVries. “You want to be able to refer them to the manual.”

No one plans to be inconsistent. But for many independents, the policy manual is “in the owner’s head,” says Ryan Blumenthal, manager of Corinne Jewelers in Toms River, N.J. And while they do their best to transfer that knowledge, “It’s impossible to do that consistently if you don’t have something like [a manual],” he says.

Consistency is most important in the way you treat your employees. A written manual ensures that everyone is treated equitably. “Without a manual, you don’t always have that equity, no matter how much you want it,” argues Ronda Daily, owner of Bremer Jewelry stores in Peoria and Bloomington, Ill.

It sets employee expectations. “Part of our job as managers and owners is to set up a system of success for employees,” says Blumenthal. “That starts with having a manual that outlines clearly what your best practices are and your policies and procedures, everything that makes your store special.”

Even the obvious has a place in a manual—like requiring employees to be on time, be honest, and treat others with courtesy and respect. “Common and sense do not exist in the same sentence when we’re talking about an employee policy,” Blumenthal says. The only way to make sure employees know the ground rules is to tell them: “Just because you know it doesn’t mean that [your employees] know it.”

Jewelers take certain things for granted, such as security and confidentiality, that may not be the norm in other industries. “Confidentiality is critical,” says Peterson. “We hear story after story where employees said the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time and got the store into a lot of trouble.”

Written expectations also make employee evaluations easier. “We’ve made our policies very clear in the manual,” says Blumenthal. “If the employees are not living up to those standards, we can see that they aren’t living up to them.”

This is particularly important when it comes to termination, says DeVries, as there are certain procedures you have to follow. With an employee manual in place, notes Daily, “You can stand behind [your policy] and say, that’s the way it was when you were hired, and nothing has changed.”

The law. Employees are savvier about their rights than they were in the past. “Today, if you tell employees that they can’t take the day off they say, ‘Show me where that is written,’” says Peterson. If you can’t defend your actions with a written policy, you may have a problem.

In addition, state labor laws require certain information be given to an employee, and an employee manual is often the best place to do that. “Something as specific and clearly defined as a sexual harassment policy is not a luxury,” says Peterson. “You can’t think, ‘I’m too small. It won’t happen to me.’ It can.”

She notes it is far better to address potentially explosive situations ahead of time than to wait until disaster strikes. For example, if you have set up a way to complain about sexual harassment before it happens, “you can use the complaint policy as a defense should someone ever sue you,” write Lisa Guerin and Amy DelPo in Create Your Own Employee Handbook: A Legal & Practical Guide.

Furthermore, sensitive issues are better handled in the broader context of a manual than any other way, says Peterson. If you publish a single-page policy statement on sexual harassment, either before or after an incident occurs, it sounds defensive. But in the manual it is simply one policy among many.

It creates a positive impression. “An employee perceives a company as being more professional when they have a manual in place,” says DeVries. It is simply something today’s employees expect, notes Peterson: “They come from other industries or other companies where the manual is the standard, not the exception.”

It informs the owner, too. Deciding what to tell employees about the store and its policies forces owners to clarify some issues for themselves: how their business differs from others, what’s important to them about being in business, and who they want to hire to work with them.

“As you’re looking at the manual, you begin to look at the workplace policies you have set up, at what is non-negotiable in employees, and how your employees represent you as a store,” says Blumenthal. The process of creating the manual for Corinne Jewelers made managers realize how important employee training was, he says. “We went from not being as consistent [as we could be] in training, or not having training as our biggest priority, to where training and the continuation of training is our top priority.”

Employee manuals should include the driving philosophy behind your business in the form of statements of core values, vision, and mission. The statement of core values and the vision for the business must be those of the business’s leader, which underlie everything else.

“No one can tell you what those are,” says Daily. “If someone says, my core value is to make a lot of money, how they treat people and their vision for the company and their mission will be a lot different from having honesty and integrity being in the forefront of everything you do.” The difference in values may make no difference on your bottom line, she says, but will make a great deal of difference on how you get there. “My core values are honesty and integrity for our guests and for our vendors and for each other,” says Daily. “That is who we are and what we do. If someone can’t live there, then they can’t live with us.

“When you know what your core values and your vision are, you sit down with the management staff or the complete staff and talk about the mission,” she continues. “They have to buy into it, hugely.”

Blumenthal adds, “If you get lost in a month or a day, you can read your mission and vision statement to get inspired again. It really forces you to remember what is important to you.”

It’s a good bet your employees will be inspired as well. Blumenthal was surprised when he started listening to the sales presentations being made by his sales associates. “You hear some of the taglines that associates use—[statements] that you put into your mission statement or your core values, [things] that you took the time to write down. They’re able to cite it from the manual.” As Blumenthal listened to associates explain the store values to customers and what sets Corinne Jewelers apart from competition, he knew they really understood the company. “That was a great surprise,” he says. “I know they didn’t just flip through the manual. They had read it and were able to translate it into selling power and great understanding of the place they go [to work] every day.”