Introducing new policies to ensure a safe and productive workplace makes sense on all sides.
Unfortunately, if your employees don’t know about your policies, it won’t do a damn thing to solve your company’s problems. In other words, if your employee handbook doesn’t get read, you’re fresh out of luck.
There are two ways to all but guarantee your employees will never read your employee handbook.
- Use a cut-and-paste employee handbook template
- Never write one in the first place
Think of the copy-and-paste template as the cookie cutter cold emails we all love to hate – there’s no feeling of a person behind it, so we tune out, ignore it, and get on with our day.
Unlike cold emails, however, if your employees ignore your handbook they’re inevitably going to fall victim to a rule they didn’t know about.
Sure, you’re still covered for the aftermath (as long as it was in the handbook to begin with), but if you want to prevent these costly blunders from happening your employee handbook needs to be interesting and engaging.
After all, wouldn’t you rather read a document that talks to you as a person, rather than another cog in some merciless corporate machine?
Why create an employee handbook?
Employee handbooks are a great way to get your employees up to speed with everything about your company.
Whether they’re an existing team member who’s unsure about your core business processes or a new hire who needs to be briefed on how to prioritize tasks according to your company values, this is the document that’s going to give them the foundation to flourish whilst working with you.
Think of it as onboarding an employee to the company itself – you’ve got your regular process for introducing them to the rest of the team, syncing up and automating their workflows, and building relations with a collaborative remote culture, but the handbook is there to provide the bare bones of what they need to know.
Each handbook is going to vary depending on the company, where they’re based, what they value, and the image they want to present, but there are elements which need to be applied to all.
What to include in the employee handbook
The trick with creating an employee handbook is making a document (or physical book) which covers the basics but is interesting enough to keep your team’s attention.
A dull handbook is useless because no-one will read it.
Having said that, the basics that most handbooks should cover are:
- Company values and mission
- Employee benefits
- Leave policy
- Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and conflict of interest statements
- Anti-discrimination policies
- Compensation policies
- Work schedules
- Standards of conduct
- General employment information
- Safety and security policies
- Computers and use of technology
- Media relations
- A signature page for the employee
Again, some of these (such as NDAs) will vary depending on the industry you work in, the company you work for, and even where your company is based. There’s also a few specifics that you need to bear in mind.
Company values and mission
The first thing you should do is set out your company values – that is, what the company as a whole is focused on achieving/providing. This both sets the tone for the rest of the document and helps you as the writer keep these core ideals in mind when working through the rest of the book.
Don’t start waxing lyrical. This isn’t the place to prove how great your company is. Here you should be saying what your company stands for, what it’s aiming to achieve, and how it’ll go about getting there at a high level.
Here you need to outline the benefits you provide to your employees such as health insurance and retirement plans. You should also include the eligibility requirements for these benefits (eg, when the retirement plan kicks in).
The key with the benefits section is including it early, rather than towards the end. Everyone loves hearing about what they’re going to get out of a situation, and by including it early you’re setting their expectations as quickly as possible while motivating them to go through the rest of the handbook.
Your leave policy needs to cover both your own personal allowances and those required by law. This means detailing allotted holiday, maternity, bereavement and sick leave, along with time off for court cases, jury duty and voting.
Again, you want to lay this out as quickly as possible so that your employees know what to expect, and what space they have to work with.
NDAs and conflicts of interest statements
Here’s where the nitty-gritty details of the handbook begin, and the first call to order is protecting your company’s sensitive information.
Lay out any NDAs or conflict of interest statements which are necessary for the employee to read and agree to. Don’t waffle on with legalistic jargon if you can avoid it either – too jargonistic and the reader will tune out, meaning both that they have no idea what they’re agreeing to, and what secrets they shouldn’t be telling.
If you feel the need for formal, convoluted language to cover potential loopholes, consider also providing a basic summary of the agreement (whilst advising them to read the whole thing). That way the employee is guaranteed to understand the agreement – it’s better to prevent secrets leaking in plain English than to just cover your back with a legal document the no-one understands.
This is an easy one – you need to lay out that discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated, including religious, racial, sexist, and disability-based discrimination.
Think of it as both protecting your existing workforce from discrimination against new employees, but also assuring your hire that this is a company which will not tolerate discrimination.
Your compensation section should include everything not covered in your benefits and leave policy.
That is, details of any tax reductions, salaries (and salary increases), pay schedules, overtime pay, breaks, bonuses, etc.
Another self-explanatory section, your work schedules should tell your employee just that; their expected work hours, attendance, punctuality, and any guidelines for flexible hours.
For example, at Process Street we all work remotely, and so need to have set times to sync up and communicate. Therefore, in our work schedules handbook section, we lay out the times that our entire team hops on Zoom to have a meeting, and the expected number of hours to work each week.
Having said that, we’re also more goal-based than strict time schedules, so if someone needs to take a day off they can work around that. For example, I recently took a Wednesday off work to travel to Latvia and stay with Ben Brandall for a couple of weeks – I worked at the weekend to make up for it.
Standards of conduct
Think of this as your “how to behave” section. Here you should describe any dress code, expected ethics, legal obligations (in terms of behavior) and how employees should conduct themselves around clients, if applicable.
A note on dress code – don’t go full dictator on items like dress length but remember to mention any important elements such as the prevalence of tattoos and/or piercings, especially for roles which deal with clients. I’m not against tattoos (I have one myself), but caution is the best way to go when addressing a new client for the first time.
General employee information
Another cleanup section, here’s where you should go into the various job classifications, along with the length of probationary periods, termination, resignation, transfer, and relocation procedures, along with any union information relating to your employees.
While they should have already been conducted by the point you give them the handbook, you should also reiterate any background checks you employ.
Safety and security
“Health and safety”, the words many love to hate. Nevertheless, your health and safety procedures (and potential hazards) need to be set in writing, along with how to report any incidents which occur, and what security responsibilities your employees have.
If your new hire needs to lock up a filing cabinet or part of the building at the end of the day, this is where they need to learn about it.
Computers and use of technology
Although you need to do some final cleanup on the security measures your team needs to employ (this time with the technology they use), this section should also tell them what the appropriate use of the technology available is, and how to take precautions with sensitive information (such as client data).
You need to present at least a semi-consistent front to the media (and, really, any outside source). As such, here is where you need to lay out the procedure for dealing with any calls or inquiries.
At the very least you should tell your employees who to contact if they are approached by a media source so that it can be passed on and have a consistent response delivered.
Employee signature page
Finally, you need to have a page for the employee to sign to officially record that they’ve read the whole thing and a date for when they completed it.
This is partially for your records (to note when the employee finished the handbook), but also to guarantee both that they have gone through the entire handbook, and that you have some backing in the event of problems arising.
After all, if your hire complains that they weren’t told about your dress code, for example, you have written evidence to prove otherwise.
Great employee handbook examples
The key to success when creating an employee handbook isn’t just covering all of the points above – it’s about capturing the essence of your company and bridging the gap between your new hire and your existing culture.
Some great examples of this are:
- Metal Toad
- Hacking Inc.
Valve is an odd company, in that it allows its employees to work on whatever takes their fancy. Not only that, but they aim to have a “flat” company hierarchy in order to ensure that no-one can be excluded, and no-one has ultimate power over another in terms of a decision-making process.
This might sound like utter chaos, but in the years since forming in 1996 they’ve produced not only some of the most influential and long-lasting games of all time, but have succeeded in releasing the most popular gaming platform and marketplace on PC.
Incidentally, their handbook is a brilliant example of how to convey the company’s culture as well as the basic company structure and benefits, full of humor and illustrations to make it anything but a dry read.
See Valve’s employee handbook here
Metal Toad, meanwhile, have taken a storybook approach to their employee handbook “Toad Lore”. Stemming from Tim Winner (now the Senior Vice President)’s desire to answer the questions that their employees *really* wanted to have answered, they went one step further than even Valve and made a leather-bound book to complete the image.
Complete with charming images and Tolkien-style maps, Metal Toad’s handbook serves as a charming and above all engaging introduction to the company.
See Metal Toad’s employee handbook here
Netflix has a little more of a traditional employee handbook in the form of a 124-page Slideshare. It doesn’t treat itself as a storybook, but instead covers the basics a handbook should without spending the time to wax lyrical.
It gets the job done, and in a highly accessible and engaging format (much like Netflix itself).
See Netflix’s employee handbook here
With a company as large as Facebook, you’d think creating a short, encompassing handbook would be next to impossible.
Ben Barry (a designer for Facebook) says as much when talking about his time with the social behemoth – over the years, the company’s mission, history, and culture had become murky beyond sight to any and every new employee, because much of it had been discussed in meetings or over FB chat or email threads.
“Those who had been present at the time had context, but for new employees that information was difficult to find, even if you knew what you were looking for.” – Ben Barry
The solution? A charming little red book with bold colors and minimal text, designed to onboard employees into the culture of an otherwise sprawling empire.
See Facebook’s employee handbook here
Although a fictional creation of Hewlett Packard, Hacking Inc’s employee handbook is another great example of how a handbook can be used effectively.
The document is filled with gifs, interactive graphs, tongue-in-cheek nods to HP “thwarting” their attempts to hack the world, and more.
See Hacking Inc.’s employee handbook here
Create your own employee handbook
So, you know what to include and how to keep the handbook engaging. Now it’s time to write (/update) your own.
Despite bashing them earlier, copy-and-paste handbook generators aren’t terrible for getting an idea of the kind of legal issues you need to cover. Check out a couple such as this one on Formswift and this one from Rocket Lawyer to get your bearings, then start planning out your own handbook.
Remember; the key with writing a handbook is that it needs to engage the reader while onboarding them with your company’s culture. You’re not just telling someone what their work schedule and bonuses are – you’re showing them the mindset that they should have when going into their first day of work.
You also need to figure out how you want to record your employee handbook. You could create a storybook like Metal Toad or Facebook, a Slideshare like Netflix, or a PDF akin to Valve’s, but there’s another way to make the handbook itself actionable and engaging – by using Process Street.
By recording your employee handbook as a template in Process Street you can assign it to the employee who needs to read it, have them tick off each task (section) as they go, and even insert form fields to let them put in their own information or files (such as a signed document).
Don’t just take my word for it either – Boomtown (one of our customers) have made their own employee handbook into part of their Agent Onboarding checklist.
I’d love to know what you’re doing to make your employee handbooks engaging in the comments below!
Ben Mulholland is an Editor at Process Street, and winds down with a casual article or two on Mulholland Writing. Find him on Twitter here.