There’s definitely an art to creating an engaging and useful employee handbook that’s going to wow your new employees and start onboarding with a bang.
The handbook needs to be informative, and written in a way that will motivate your new hires to read it from cover to cover.
But it’s not just about creativity and good writing. Your employee handbook also needs to address sensitive subjects, like workers’ rights and obligations, tactfully and thoroughly.
This article will give you a primer on some good practices you should follow while creating your first employee handbook.
It will also touch upon some common pitfalls you should avoid to protect yourself and your employees from conflict and legal repercussions.
Provide Immediate Support to Your New Employee
A good employee handbook wastes no time in providing immediate support to the reader by placing the most important information at the beginning.
This guarantees that the employee will know exactly what to do in the most common work situations from day one. More complex knowledge and a deeper dive into your company’s procedures, on the other hand, can wait.
Why is this important?
Well, an unfortunate statistic obtained by Talentlyft shows us that a large part of your new workforce never reads most of your employee handbook.
Since there’s a very real risk the new employee won’t make it to the end of the document, it’s definitely a good idea to put the essential information at the beginning.
That way, as mentioned earlier, you can rest assured that they at least know who to ask for information and where to turn in the case of an emergency.
So, what exactly constitutes essential information every employee needs to feel supported?
Here’s a short list:
- A welcome message, just to start off on the right foot
- Company’s contact information
- The basics of management structure
- Communication channels the employee can turn to
- Useful links
- A quick FAQ section
Of course, you don’t need to include everything from this list. Instead, you can mix and match this introductory section to suit the character and the needs of your company.
For example, the company behind the code search and intelligence tool for developers Sourcegraph includes a nice welcome message, useful links, and information about the company’s Slack channels.
If you think about it, any book you’ve ever picked up starts with an Impressum and a preface.
Your employee handbook should have one too, and it should be informative enough to provide a warm welcome to the employee and arm them with the essential information they need to start working.
Explain the Philosophy of Your Company
With the essentials out of the way, it’s time to dive deeper into what your company is all about.
After all, your new employee isn’t just taking on a new role; they’re becoming an integral part of a new community. Therefore, they should have a good understanding of the values the company was built on.
So, you should include a page or two about the philosophy behind your company in the onboarding handbook.
What makes the company stand out? How are you different from everyone else? What can you offer to your employees to motivate them to stay with you in the long run?
As a common practice, companies like to include some of these items in their handbook to make their offerings clear:
- Company values
- Goals, vision, and mission
- Strategy and long-term plan
- Information about current projects
You don’t have to worry about going into too much detail, either. For the purposes of this handbook, you just need to create an outline that covers the basics of what constitutes your company’s identity.
Your goal here is for your new employees to get a good understanding of the organization and team they are joining.
Let’s look at a good example from Slack, the communication platform.
The company communicates no more and no less than six core values they believe every member of their team should exhibit.
Their message is succinct and clear, something that every employee can understand and follow in their daily work.
This is a good practice because the more complicated you make your message, the less clear and actionable it’s going to be.
This is equally applicable to the rest of this section in the handbook.
Be concise and clear as you explain the culture and spirit at your company, and don’t forget to communicate what you offer to your workers to motivate them to internalize your values, mission, and strategy.
Remember, a good company is a pleasant place to work, but a great company is a philosophy and an entire way of life.
Communicate Your Company Policy
One chapter in your employee handbook that will require some rather specific information is the part where you outline your company policies.
Since this is the “rules of play” section of your handbook, you need to be particular when describing what’s expected of employees and how they should behave and react in common work situations.
If you manage to do a good job explaining your rules and policies, you should be seeing very little friction within your workforce because everyone on your team should be able to understand the dos and don’ts of their new workplace.
Trello puts this information front and center in their employee guide, which is, of course, housed on their own platform.
They insist on their employees reading the section about policies on their first day on the job.
Their handbook goes on to explain how to order office supplies, or how the lunch break works (it’s a buffet-style table with fresh food delivered every day, by the way).
Most importantly, it instructs the employee to never write down anything negative about a customer, be it in customer-facing communication or otherwise.
Trello does a good job of concisely laying out the rules, but keep in mind that the policies you describe in your handbook need to reflect your own company.
You cannot simply take a page out of their own book, as there really isn’t a one-fits-all solution here.
The rule of thumb is: if it’s an important policy for your company, don’t hesitate to include it in this section of the handbook.
Here are some more policies companies usually add to their handbooks:
- Safety and security instructions
- Dress code
- Compensation, payroll, deductibles, and other information pertaining to worker compensation
- Non-discrimination and equal opportunities policies
- COVID-19 specific rules of conduct and prevention measures
If you’re unsure about what to add to your list of policies, just try to think about the rules that may not be super clear from the outset.
You don’t want your employees to feel lost and unsure of how to act in sensitive situations, so these are the topics you should definitely be dealing with in your handbook.
For instance, many US states have recently legalized the recreational and/or medical use of marijuana. Some states have even outlined employee protection laws that explain how to handle cannabis use at work.
Since this is a fresh piece of legislation, many companies have decided to add a cannabis policy to their employee guides and companies.
This is a really good idea because it’s important to be clear on your stance when it comes to complicated legal matters like this one.
All in all, company policy is what keeps everyone on the same page in a functioning work environment.
Therefore, giving this section of the handbook your full attention definitely prevents embarrassment or even bigger problems down the line.
Choose the Right Medium for Your Handbook
This is where you can get very creative.
Instead of welcoming new hires with a messy stack of papers that’s bound to get lost, destroyed, or thrown away very soon, try to find a format your employees will find engaging enough to read entirely and use frequently.
Some companies choose SlideShare to get their point across, while others even invest in video guides to make the information they’re sharing as engaging as possible.
For example, check out this cool video GrubHub uses to onboard new drivers as a good example of a video handbook.
With Trello, we saw that the company uses its own platform to host its handbook. That’s a great idea because who’s going to be more skilled at using Trello than their own employees?
On the other hand, it’s also interesting to note that many companies are bringing back actual hardcover, full-color books as a preferred format for employee handbooks.
These are often written in a fun, conversational style and come complete with beautiful illustrations and helpful photos.
A famous example that deserves a special mention here is Valve, the video game developer.
Their handbook is a treasure trove of humor and good writing that adequately prepares employees for the challenges of their new job.
It even features some of the most famous characters from Valve’s video games!
If you have the time, we definitely recommend reading the whole handbook for lots of good practices you can incorporate into your own guide for new employees.
Of course, the production costs of such a handbook would be quite substantial. Furthermore, physical handbooks can get damaged or be lost.
So, a less ostentatious, and arguably more practical medium for your handbook could be an online knowledge library that your employees could consult whenever they need to and wherever they are.
That’s why many companies today turn to quality documentation software to house their employee handbooks.
Documentation software, such as our own product, Archbee, allows you to present your handbook as a kind of Wikipedia totally dedicated to your company.
Archbee features handy document collections so employees can always find the information they need easily, and each document is published as its own web page to make it accessible at all times.
All you need to do is provide your new hire with the login information, and they can explore your employee handbook independently and at their own pace.
Employee handbooks come in many shapes and sizes.
To ensure yours gets read and applied to the fullest extent, try to find the perfect medium that will satisfy your workers and reflect your company’s unique character.
Have Your Legal Department Review the Handbook
Some of the things you will be discussing in your handbook will be quite sensitive.
While every company needs structure and a set of rules that should be followed to the letter, there are certain expectations and requirements you cannot put before your employees as they can lead to serious legal problems for your company.
That’s why it’s vitally important that everything you put in your employee handbook gets inspected and approved by your legal team before it ever reaches your workforce.
Playing fast and loose with your policies and rules can cause tremendous damage to your company, both in terms of potential legal action taken against you, but also in terms of your reputation.
Let’s take a look at an unsavory example.
Recently, one company received a lot of backlash when a photo taken of its notice board started to make rounds on social media.
We’re sure you already know that US law protects the workers’ right to discuss their salaries and compensation—it’s been federal law since 2014.
Obviously, the person who put up this notice didn’t take the time to consult a member of the legal department at the company.
However, this is a pretty obvious example. You can get into trouble for a lot less as even an unfortunate choice of wording could result in a lawsuit against your company.
Therefore, the safest course of action would be to have your lawyers look over the entire handbook (as well as any other document that outlines rules and regulations at your company) before it’s distributed among your employees.
You can deliver the document to your lawyers once it’s completed, but it’s even better to bring them in to collaborate on the document from the start.
That way, they can help you with the content and the wording you use when approaching sensitive subjects such as worker’s rights, compensation, time off, overtime, and more.
If you’re using documentation software like Archbee, you can restrict access and allow collaboration on your documents as you’re working on them to make sure everything you write is in accordance with the law and codes of ethical conduct.
You can even review the history of the document to see which changes have been made and chat directly on documents to produce the right information on your first try.
This will save you a lot of time because you’re ensuring your handbook doesn’t need to go through a dozen drafts before it’s ready to be shared with everyone.
The key takeaway here is that your handbook will inherently carry some legal risks because it discusses sensitive information pertaining to workers’ rights.
Do what you can to mitigate these legal risks and avoid friction with your workforce by getting legal approval for your employee handbook.
Regularly Update Your Handbook
Expanding on our previous point, you should also know that no employee handbook should be set in stone.
Much to the contrary, this is a living and breathing document that needs to reflect the times we live in, so you should definitely update it regularly and keep the information stored within fresh and relevant.
Remember how we talked about the recent changes in legislation concerning cannabis use?
That’s an excellent example of how documents such as your employee handbook need to change with the times to remain compliant with contemporary legislation.
This means that whoever is responsible for the contents of your employee handbook needs to practically know it by heart.
That way, they can quickly react in cases where a policy or rule becomes obsolete, unlawful, or out of sync with the plans and ambitions of your company.
Another very relevant example is the addition of COVID-19 specific rules, regulations, and guides.
As the pandemic started to take hold, employers needed to react quickly to ensure the safety and protection of their teams.
Many companies wisely put this information in their handbooks and notified their employees of the addendum as soon as it was added.
By the way, this is another reason why online employee handbooks might be the best choice for your company.
If your handbook is available online, that means it can be edited at any moment, allowing you to be agile when you need to add, subtract, or change any information that exists in your company's knowledge base.
This is much harder to do if your handbook is only available in hard copy or in a video format.
But with documentation software, it’s really easy to keep your documents, knowledge, and information fresh and up to date.
Keep in mind that we live in a chaotic world where the rules of engagement are always subject to change.
The ability to update your handbook is your way of keeping your company, as well as your employees, safe and protected at all times.
It’s clear that creating your first employee handbook isn’t as easy as jotting down a few rules and procedures on a piece of paper.
Your handbook needs to be full of useful, relevant, and accurate information that will guide your employees to success at your company.
It also needs to be housed in a format that best suits your needs and kept up to date so that it reflects the times we live in. In short, you have to ensure it serves your company and your employees well.
That being said, your employee handbook is also an expression of your company’s spirit and everything it represents, so don’t forget to have fun while you’re creating it!
That’s the best way to ensure this important document will be read entirely and make a great companion for the amazing people joining your company.