Saturday, January 19

The Problem With Handbooks? All Those Damn Rules!

The recently-purchased Tribune Company has issued its newly-revised employee handbook, and it's a doozy. No, not long - it is apparently 2/3 of its original size. And not confusing, either. The L.A. Times (which the company owns) described the manual as "nothing like the mind-numbing, lawyered gobbledygook in most corporate manuals." (Hey! They make that sound like a bad thing.)

No, Sam Zell's new sleek, "innovative" manual eschews legalease for comedy and brevity, I guess hoping to foster camaraderie and brighten the atmosphere at the LA and Chicago offices. But in the process, Zell may be tying a blindfold around the company and walking it to the firing line. According to the Times, the manual begins:

Rule #1: Use your best judgment.

Rule #2: See Rule #1.

Rule #3 better be "ask your buddy who went to law school" or this is going to go downhill fast.

"Use your best judgment"? Honestly, I like Sam Zell. He reminds me of Daddy Warbucks. But this is just a patently bad idea. Does Zell not realize he's talking to reporters? And that's not nearly the worst of it.

For more excerpts from this lawsuit-waiting-to-happen, click the jump.

[Ed Note: We would love to get a copy of this manual. If anyone knows where they might sell bootleg copies, feel free to email us. We preserve anonymity.]

It gets so much better; from the Times article:

Among its nine "core values," the manual encourages employees to "Question authority and push back if you do not like the answer. You will earn respect, and not get into trouble for asking tough questions."

Sure. That's always been my experience. Don't get me wrong - I understand what Zell's thinking - employee handbooks are usually a pretty boring read. So the purpose is good, and sometimes the handbook actually delivers some laughs. Consider the new discrimination policy:

* "2.5. Discrimination based on gender, age, race, religion, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, disability or any other characteristic not related to performance, ability or attitude, protected by federal or state law, or not protected (such as inability to tell a joke, the occasional poor wardrobe choice or bad hair day), is strictly prohibited."

* "4.5. Making the building too hot, banging on trash can lids or loud bagpipe music are annoyances you can complain about," but such actions don't constitute harassment on the basis of protected characteristics.

Ok, so it's funny. But is it safe? Every proponent of the handbook decried the "legalease" and overlawyered thickness of employee handbooks, one analyst even said it was a good thing that this one hadn't been across counsel's desk. But what the hell is the point of an employee handbook that doesn't keep you out of trouble?

The lead author of the manual, interactive CEO Randy Michaels, is convinced that not showing it to a lawyer is going to cut down on litigation costs for employment cases:

"The more policies you have, the more opportunities there are for someone who is very unhappy to sue.

"I'm amazed and amused at what lawyers get businesspeople to do," he said. "I think we'll have fewer legal problems with plain English and common sense than with pages and pages of rules."

Riiiiight. Let me know how that turns out for you. Honestly, If I'm a plaintiff's lawyer and I read that LA Times article, I'd be sending a business card to every mope at every desk the bullpen and then wait. And if the Trib had a problem with it, I'd tell them I was merely "taking an intelligent risk" (That's Rule #6).

When it's all said and done, you've either got the lawyers at the front end or the back, and all it takes is one lawsuit to make the funniest of manuals look pretty lame.