How to Develop an Employee Handbook

Dragos
Dragos
Founder, robot with feelings. From planet Aiur.

How to develop an employee handbook that you employees will want to read? We've gathered seven best practices to help you with that.

📚 Table of contents

Although an employee handbook is essential for every company that wants to legally protect its business and set expectations for the employees, creating one can be a bit tricky.

There are rules to consider, policies to keep in mind, and regulations that need constant updates and revisions. On top of that, you also need to think about design and copy to make the handbook appealing to its intended audience.

You want your employees to read your handbook, not to put it aside as soon as it comes into their hands.

That’s why we have gathered seven best practices that will help you on your journey of creating a well-written and visually attractive employee handbook that everyone will be excited about.

Review Your Current Company Policies

With so much on the plate in the normal course of the workday, it can be hard to find the time and energy to go through your policies and procedures and check if they need revisions.

However, outdated policies and procedures can do you more harm than good. Insufficient and obsolete policies pose a legal threat and can put your company at risk of liability.

Furthermore, handbooks are usually one of the first documents new employees will get their eyes on when they start working.

Source: Archbee

Suppose the policies in your handbook have mistakes or cover outdated data. In that case, you might convey some incorrect information to your employees, leaving the impression that your company is not very professional.

That is why it is vital to ensure your policies are reviewed at least once a year and that all the information is correct and up to date.

When revising, it’s a good idea to ask yourself a few questions to be sure that you’ve covered everything important:

  • Is your policy outdated?
  • Did the laws change lately?
  • Has your company gone through major changes recently?
  • Are your policies still useful for employee onboarding?

Having these questions in mind will help you better understand what needs to be updated, revised, or completely rewritten.

But in some cases, it is not advisable to wait for the annual review period to change your policies.

For example, if your company has changed its address or has a new owner, it would be advisable to review your policies as soon as possible and make the necessary changes in the documentation.

Also, if you know that a big change in governmental regulations will happen shortly, you should consider which policies these new laws will affect and be prepared to act accordingly.

For example, let’s say your company is based in Texas, but you’re opening an office in California. For the California office, you will have to change, among other things, the paid time off policy because of the regulatory differences between those two states.

Source: Patriot

In Texas, employers can apply a use-it-or-lose-it policy, meaning they don’t have to allow employees to carry over unused vacation from one year to the next.

However, in California, this policy is prohibited by law, so you will have to rewrite your existing vacation policy for the Californian office.

As you can see from the example above, regularly reviewing your policies will keep your company in compliance with the relevant laws and regulations and help you protect your business, but also your employees.

Trim Complicated Policies

You have probably already heard that not many employees read the employee handbook.

While this sounds worrying, it is true that employee handbooks are often full of incomprehensive legal terms, which makes them hard to read, especially without yawning.

While these long, complicated, confusing paragraphs may be important for your business legally, they will leave your employees perplexed, pondering on their meaning.

And if they don’t understand them, they will not read and abide by them.

Source: Archbee

To shorten your employee handbook but keep it relevant and useful for your employees, you’re going to have to ask yourself some pretty philosophical questions.

Why do I have an employee handbook, and who is going to read it? What do I want to accomplish with it? Do I really need ten pages about the code of conduct? Why do I offer that exact benefit and not another?

Source: Gusto

If you explain to yourself the reasons behind all your rules and policies, there is a strong possibility that you will be able to trim them and impart them to your employees in a coherent and clear way.

Another practice that could help you is to create summaries of your key policies and include them in the handbook, right above the actual policies.

Just a few sentences, with all the legal language and complexities left out, should help your employees get a better sense of what their rights and obligations are in every situation.

Furthermore, a quick summary might also help them remember the gist of every policy and make finding the correct policy much easier and quicker.

So, you can create short summaries of complicated topics and then refer the employees to the full policy if they want to go more in-depth.

To sum up, you should avoid overloading your employee handbook with too much legalese. Your employees will not read the policies and thus might miss out on information important for their job. So shortening your employee handbook is a way to go.

Draft an Outline of Your Handbook

If you want to create a great employee handbook, start with a well-thought-out outline.

Your handbook will represent your company and what it stands for, as well as legally protect your business. So it is a good idea to put more effort into planning it from the start, so later you can create it quickly and avoid forgetting crucial elements.

With a good outline acting as a solid foundation, execution will be a breeze.

Employee handbooks can cover a wide array of topics, so note down procedures that will be most relevant for your employees, as well as policies that are important for protecting your business from litigation.

This may seem like a big undertaking, but there are tons of articles and templates out there that you can consult in search of inspiration, and that will make the whole process more manageable.

Source: bit.ai

You don’t want to leave anything out, so it might be helpful to also check out some of our previous articles where we covered some things to include in the company handbook and must-have policies that every employee handbook should include.

Here’s a short roundup of the policies we definitely consider handbook-worthy:

Source: Archbee

While this is not a definitive list because your company and the industry it operates in are unique and have special regulations, it will be a foundation on which you can build specialized sections and categories.

For example, if you work at a construction company, you may want to pay special attention to safety procedures and work-related injuries. And if you are in a high-tech web development company, you will probably emphasize the use of technology and remote work policies.

This is just an example of tailoring the employee handbook to suit your needs, but you get the picture. You have to keep in mind that your company is unique and can’t be compared to any other, and your outline should reflect that.

Remember, the outline is the backbone of your employee handbook. So it would be best if you put a lot of thought into it from the start, so you can have an easy time during the process of creating it.

Let Different Stakeholders Review the Handbook

As we already mentioned in previous sections, company handbooks are often full of complicated legal jargon that is hard for employees to decipher.

To avoid being too technical and to be more in line with the employees’ day-to-day needs, it is crucial to let different stakeholders go through and revise your handbook.

Usually, the HR and legal departments are responsible for compiling and reviewing the handbook and ensuring that there are no legal loopholes that can be exploited.

But having a technically correct and legally sound handbook isn’t enough if you really want your employees to comply with the rules and regulations set by it.

While these experts make sure that all the legal policies are in place and in accordance with the laws, a fresh pair of eyes from different stakeholders can come in handy in making the handbook more comprehensible and informative.

Source: Archbee

The best way to include other stakeholders in the process is to let the HR and legal team make a draft and invite others to pitch in.

For instance, who would be better to provide valuable insights about the company's mission, vision, values, and history than the CEOs and its founders?

And who would be more suitable to advise on how to make an employee handbook more interesting and easier to grasp than the marketing team?

They really are the ones who can point out the possible flaws and offer advice on how to improve the content in the employee handbook.

Many companies avoid asking employees about their opinion because they think it is unnecessary as they are not in charge of making decisions. But they are crucial stakeholders for the business too.

They can offer you indispensable insights crucial for the quality of your employee handbook. After all, they are the ones it is intended for, and there is no one better than them to notice its weak spots and recommend improvements.

To summarize, with a collaborative approach, you will be able to look at your handbook from different angles, avoid pitfalls, correct mistakes, notice if anything is missing, and make everything more straightforward.

You will also make a huge step to creating an open and cooperative culture in your company.

Choose a Design

Choosing the best design for your company handbook is not an easy feat, considering that it mainly consists of policies and procedures intended to protect your company legally.

But that doesn't necessarily mean there is no room for getting creative.

On the contrary, many companies have found a way to spice things up and create outstanding handbooks that serve the purpose of being great employee manuals and tell a captivating story about the company and its culture.

However, there are many things you should consider when designing an employee handbook. As a general rule, the design should hold the employees' attention and make the handbook worth reading. In other words, it shouldn't be boring.

So let's go over a few design tips and see how you can create a visually attractive handbook for your company.

The first point of contact between a book and its reader is the cover. And first impressions count, so adding a little flair to the cover can go a long way in engaging your employees to read your handbook.

To illustrate this point further, let's look at an example from the recruitment company Austin Fraser.

Source: bpando

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but looking at their employee handbook, you can undoubtedly say that its front page offers a promising start.

With a simple and aesthetically pleasing design that consists only of the logo and the name Little Book of House Rules, the cover tells a story of a modern company that is like a second home to its employees.

And the cover delivers what it promises. The handbook really is a little book because of the smaller format than a standard paper size and the content that is reduced to the essential information.

As the rules are written in everyday language, they feel more like house rules than a set of policies and procedures.

As you can see, the cover can be a great way to attract the reader and set the style that you can continue in the rest of the handbook.

On the inside pages, you can add photos, illustrations, charts, comics, infographics, and other design elements to make the content more informative and attractive.

You can even add children’s book illustrations like the ones that the education company EF Education First incorporated in their handbook.

Source: FastCompany

The company’s values are presented here with such beautiful illustrations, captivating typography, and creative copywriting that we feel compelled to read it from cover to cover just to see what comes next.

As you can see, the design can be an excellent way to take your employee handbook to the next level. And even if you don’t have the budget for the custom designs, there are plenty of free templates available online that will add a dash of creativity to your company handbook.

Decide On a Distribution Channel

Once the style, format, and content of your handbook have been sorted, it is time to choose the right channel to distribute it.

The days when employee handbooks were held in 3-hole binders buried under the stack of paper on some dusty shelf are, luckily, a thing of the past.

Today companies have a variety of channels at their disposal to choose from, selecting the ones that are the most suitable for their business and most accessible to their employees.

For a long time now, the trend has been that companies are turning their backs to printed versions of handbooks. The reason is that they can be costly, and can’t be modified or changed.

That being said, when a company puts a lot of effort into writing, designing, and printing the employee handbook, there’s a chance it will become a small work of art, as we can see in the example of Valve, the video game developer.

Source: SteamUnpowered

This handbook illustrates perfectly how, if you put a lot of thought into creating it, such a publication can still be modern, fresh, and engaging even many years after it was printed.

In today’s day and age, when many employees work remotely, shipping physical copies can be rather costly, so companies usually opt for digital versions of the handbook.

Creating handbooks in the form of PDFs, slide presentations, and videos, and sending them to their employees by email, Slack, or any other channel they are using makes the whole process much easier.

But as the digital age marches on, there’s now an even more practical and user-friendly solution–creating an online knowledge library using documentation software, such as Archbee. This kind of software allows you to store your handbook, so it’s almost like having a Wikipedia for your own company.

Source: Archbee

With documentation software, your employees can access different sections of the handbook anytime they search for information. And they can do it from anywhere, even from their smartphone.

What is also practical about it is that you can directly make changes in the online documents, and they will automatically be visible to the employees.

There is no longer a need to send a new copy of the handbook in an email anytime you update it. You can edit it online with just a few clicks, and Archbee will automatically inform everyone that the changes have been made.

All in all, there are a lot of different channels for distributing your employee handbook. Choose the most suitable one from your company and from which the employees will have the most use.

Keep It Up to Date

Many businesses overlook the importance of making regular updates and changes in the employee handbook.

It is easy to think that it is enough to create it once and leave it somewhere on the company intranet where no one knows where it is or what is written.

But a good employee handbook is not carved in stone but rather a work in progress.

Everything changes all the time–laws get updated, technology advances, regulations get revised, a pandemic takes hold and remote work becomes commonplace… And in no time, your employee handbook can be riddled with information that is outdated, or plain wrong.

Believe it or not, there are still handbooks out there that describe how to use floppy disks and fax machines. Although this is a rare and rather extreme case, it is a good example of how your company manual can quickly become obsolete.

That is why you should regularly check its pages and make sure all the information it contains is correct and up to date.

In previous articles, we’ve already discussed how the new marijuana laws and the rise of the COVID 19 pandemic forced companies to incorporate addendums in their handbooks to regulate new conditions in law and society.

Another great example of how the sections of the employee handbook can quickly change due to cultural changes is the dress code policy.

A dress code policy would have been a very long section in the past. Today, many businesses are less concerned with what employees wear and more focused on how they are performing.

That led to the changes in the employee handbooks, where the preferable work attire has now been described simply as “business casual”.

Source: Business Insider

But that may be changing as well. As many companies switched to working remotely, the dress code has become unimportant to such an extent that there is almost no need to regulate it.

Remember, your employee handbook is not intended to withstand the test of time. It is a living document prone to changes that must grow with your company and the industry in which it operates.

And while some aspects of it will likely remain the same, others will need to be adapted as your company evolves.

Conclusion

In this article, we tried to show you what makes an employee handbook great, how you can structure it, why it is important to include design elements in the layout, and how good teamwork can bring it to the next level.

The process of creating an employee handbook may seem overwhelming at first, but if you follow these simple steps, it can become a more manageable and straightforward task.

Remember, if you do it right from the start, your employee handbook will protect you and your employees in the years to come. So it is worth putting some effort into it.