What does an employee handbook have to do with surgical anesthesia? Yes, they both put you to sleep; but that’s not what I’m getting at. Surgical anesthesia came onto the scene back in the early 1800’s—about the same time that antiseptics arrived. The one caught on quickly—doctors loved anesthesia—but the other didn’t. Why? Because surgical anesthesia solved an immediate and visible problem, while antiseptics solved an invisible problems (germs) and the effects of antiseptics were not immediate.

The same is true with an employee handbook. It doesn’t solve an immediate problem. It also doesn’t have an immediate effect. That’s why most employee handbooks sit in filing cabinets collecting dust or are saved deep in hard drives. An employee handbook also doesn’t seem to affect employee behavior. My bet is that most employees never read the employee handbook. That means that most handbooks are merely a defensive document to be used in court.

As a defensive document, the handbook typically doesn’t do a very good job of preventing lawsuits. It merely reacts to them. The better approach is to have both a defensive document, you have to protect yourself, and an approach that affects employee behavior in a good way. So how do you do that?

You can’t expect much change by merely distributing a handbook and by collecting certifications. That’s the defensive approach. You can try sticks. But people don’t like sticks. You can try carrots. But that just encourages people to game the system. Neither of these approaches work very well.

The most effective approach is the approach that takes the most work. It’s one-to-one personal teaching. It’s opening up the handbook with each employee and discussing the expectations established in the handbook. It’s listening to your employees. This sort of effort develops trust, so it should come from the top. Your employees follow the lead of people they know and trust. If this effort comes from the top, then you stand a much better chance of establishing the right type of norms in you business. The personal touch, in addition to the right legal protections in the handbook, will go a long ways towards preventing lawsuits.