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Veterinarian Technician July 2007 (Vol 28, No 7) Focus: Medical Advances

Management Matters: "Making Your Employee Handbook a Valuable Resource"

by Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, PHR

    Author's Note

    Through the years, I have learned that the first golden rule of human resource management is, "Document, document, document." The second rule is, "Be consistent!" One of the best ways to remain consistent and to document is to create written policies. But let's be frank: Creating an employee handbook is not fun. It is a grueling task, and when you finally get through it, the book is already outdated and requires addenda, revisions, and reprints. Yet handbooks are a "necessary evil" of managing a veterinary practice. When I have had to manage employees without the aid of a handbook or wanted to refer to a policy or protocol that was not included in the current edition of a practice's handbook, I have often had to reinvent the wheel. Therefore, an employee handbook is imperative to providing the consistency needed in management. However, when combining written policies into a handbook, the management team must avoid numerous pitfalls. It is not enough to merely create a handbook; you need to create a handbook that works.

    Establishing the practice's policies and expectations from the beginning helps create the foundation of a mutually beneficial relationship. Therefore, the employee handbook should be one of the first things a new employee receives. The handbook should not be confused with the operations manual or procedure manual; these manuals describe and explain how the employee should work. In contrast, the employee handbook explains how the practice should work and how each employee fits into the larger picture. It is often understood that the handbook should outline the rules and regulations of the practice, but it is also a place to lay the foundation for the core values of the hospital. The handbook should begin with the history of the practice. The mission and vision should be included to describe the practice culture. The management philosophy of the practice can be illustrated by providing an organizational chart listing staff titles and positions and outlining the process for training, evaluation, promotion, and discipline within the practice. The qualities that are expected of the employee should also be described in a code of conduct so that this culture is preserved.


    Veterinary practice managers can use several resources to create or evaluate an employee handbook. One book in particular provides basic information for creating a handbook. Practice Made Perfect: A Guide to Veterinary Practice Management, by Marsha L. Heinke, DVM, EA, CPA, CVPM, and John B. McCarthy, DVM, MBA, outlines the main topics that should be covered in a handbook. According to Drs. Heinke and McCarthy,1 a handbook should answer the following important questions:

    • What do you want your employees to know about your hospital?
    • What accomplishments bring the most pride to your veterinary practice?
    • What conduct do you expect of your employees?
    • What rules must be followed?
    • What problems have occurred in the past that you would like to avoid?

    Inevitably, if a question is not answered by the handbook, an employee will ask it. However, even when a handbook seems to answer all possible questions, there are additional ways to ensure that nothing is overlooked.


    Once the content of your handbook is complete, related policies should be cross-referenced or organized into logical sections. Each individual policy probably makes sense to the management team because that team knows how all the policies work together. However, employees looking for information that applies to a specific situation may not realize that their question is addressed by more than one policy in the handbook. For example, your practice may have a vacation policy explaining how employees can use vacation time when they are ill. If there is also a policy on how employees should call in sick or find coverage for their shift, ensure that both policies are cross-referenced or put them in the same section. This way, employees can easily find all of the information they need, and employers have all of the facts together when upholding the policies.


    Because employees may need to refer to more than one policy to answer a question, the handbook should maintain a consistent tone and style of writing (formal or casual) to avoid confusion. The terminology used and any facts mentioned should also stay the same throughout the book. For example, be sure that the number of hours an employee must work to be considered a full-time employee is consistent throughout the handbook. Full-time status is often referenced for benefits information and then again for other policies. As with any legal document in the practice, your attorney or legal counsel should approve the final version and future updates to the employee handbook. Your handbook should also be proofread carefully for typographical errors. This can be performed by another member of management or an employee whose opinion you trust. The more eyes that read over the draft, the more mistakes will be caught before the handbook is printed.


    The employee handbook should be distributed during new-hire orientation. Yet giving a new employee the handbook does not ensure that he or she will read it or feel accountable for following the guidelines or knowing the policies within. Therefore, it is important that new employees sign a document that acknowledges receipt and acceptance of the handbook. To give a new employee time to read and absorb the information, collect the signed document within the first 3 days that the employee is on the job. This signed document should be filed in the employee's personnel file. If it becomes necessary to discipline the employee for violating a policy in the handbook, you will need to reference this document. For example, if an employee does not follow the protocol for calling in sick, he or she can be notified of the lapse as follows: "According to the employee handbook, which you signed receipt of on May 15, 2007, you were responsible for finding coverage for your shift as stated in the policy on 'Calling in Absent.'" Accountability is only enforceable in the presence of documentation and signatures — which could be the third golden rule of human resources!


    Regardless of what resource you use to create your handbook, how long you spend developing the handbook, or how often you make revisions (typically, handbooks are revised annually), you will undoubtedly encounter situations that are not addressed in the current content. In these cases, you will need to develop a new policy. When the policy is created, it must be announced and applied fairly to all employees, and an addendum to the handbook should be typed and distributed. It is best to present new policies at a staff meeting or in another forum where all employees are likely to receive the same information. The effective date is determined by the date of announcement, and punishment for violating this policy cannot be retroactive.

    For example, it may become apparent to the management team that the tardiness of one employee is causing a problem: The team is less efficient, and morale is dropping because the coworkers of the tardy employee feel slighted. These employees may even begin to come in late if their tardy colleague's behavior continues. The management team may then decide to develop a stricter policy on punctuality. An announcement is made that "effective immediately, the policy for punctuality is as follows. . . " The new policy is distributed, and from that time, all tardy employees are held accountable for not adhering to the new rule.

    It is also advisable to have all staff members sign or initial a copy of the new policy and to file this signature in their personnel files. A second copy should be given to each employee to add to his or her handbook. When making yearly revisions to the handbook, incorporate the addenda from the previous year into the new edition. New employees should receive the most recent version of the employee handbook, including all of the pertinent policies added since the last printing. When a new edition of the handbook is printed, every employee should receive a copy and sign a new document of receipt specifying the edition received (e.g., "Employee Handbook, Revised May 2007" is indicated on the signed form). These new signed documents should go into the employees' personnel files.


    Employee handbooks are a necessary tool in communicating employer expectations and in providing a solid policy for the management team to follow. Written policies take the guesswork out of answering questions and provide the same answers for all employees. If thoughtfully organized and well maintained, the employee handbook should become the best-read book in your practice!



    The following CD-ROMs can assist in creating a handbook or in evaluating a current handbook.

    • The AAHA Guide to Creating an Employee Handbook, ed. 2, focuses on creating a handbook for the veterinary business. To order this software, visit www.aahanet.org.
    • Policies Now, by Administaff Software (formerly KnowledgePoint Software), can be used as a basic guide for creating a handbook. For more information, visit www.knowledgepoint.com.


    • Heinke ML (ed): Practice Makes Perfect: A Guide to Veterinary Practice Management. Lakewood, CO, American Animal Hospital Association Press, 2001.

    1. Heinke ML, McCarthy JB: Personnel management, in Heinke ML (ed): Practice Made Perfect: A Guide to Veterinary Practice Management. Lakewood, CO, American Animal Hospital Association Press, 2001, pp 21-37.

    References »

    NEXT: On The Cover: "A Talk with Gerianne Holzman, CVT, VTS (Dentistry)"


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