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Give Your Employee Handbook a Facelift

There are two ways to look at employee handbooks:

  1. As a detailed document whose primary function is to set clear boundaries around employee behavior to provide legal support for any adverse action you might need to take some day, or
  2. As a means to make employees feel good about working for you as well as a tool to strengthen your recruitment efforts.

The trick is to balance those two purposes without creating a schizophrenic document that nobody will read. Many employers are failing in that regard. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that a large number of employees admit they haven’t read the full handbook. Some have no idea where their handbooks are. And a few say they’ve never even cracked these manuals open.

Don’t “Freak Out”

Some employers, including software developer Valve Inc., emphasize the second purpose. The introduction in Valve’s handbook makes the following statement: “This book isn’t about fringe benefits or how to set up your workstation or where to find source code… [It’s] about the choices you’re going to be making and how to think about them. Mainly, it’s about how not to freak out now that you’re here.”

The handbook refers readers to a website “for more nuts-and-bolts information” — a practical solution that makes it easier for you to keep the document updated. Just remember, when changes are made, you need to inform your employees.

The Valve handbook also covers topics that don’t qualify as nuts-and-bolts, such as the company’s history and philosophy, and this: an explanation of why its workstations are on wheels (to facilitate employee movement from project to project as teams change).

Profits Matter

While that approach might not suit your business, it illustrates an effort to make the employee handbook a user-friendly introduction to the company. Food retailer Zingerman’s also employs a casual and graphically engaging employee manual, but suitable for a more traditional workforce. Its handbook’s list of guiding principles includes a direct statement about the importance of profitability (described as the “lifeblood” of the company), while also highlighting the importance of being a “great place to work” and strong customer relationships.

In addition, Zingerman’s handbook covers such practical topics as how to deal with customers on the phone (including giving them a chance to say “no” when asking them if they can wait on hold), how to go the extra mile for customers, and how to resolve conflicts: “Working in a fast-paced, quality-oriented place will inevitably lead to interpersonal frustrations and tensions.

“Our goal isn’t that we all love each other, just that we learn to work together professionally and courteously so that we can deliver great results. … When tension between two of us occurs, it’s imperative that we handle it effectively.” The document then lists steps to accomplish that result.

Maximize Handbook Mileage

Here are some tips on how to get the most mileage out of your employee handbook.

  • Change the name. Most of us hear “employee handbook” and think of something that goes in the bottom desk drawer, never to be viewed again, if at all. One suggestion is calling it, “The Way Things Work at (fill in your company name).”
  • State your destination. That is, emphasize the mission and values of your company as a way to inspire your employees. This may also help them better understand the reasons behind some of your policies.
  • Why do you do what you do? Describe how your policies back up your values. For example, you might have a policy of never putting a caller on hold more than once, which supports your strong customer service values. When it comes to your company values, skip the boilerplate text and get to the heart of what you believe.
  • What makes your company special? Highlight the positives you may offer, such as exceptional employee benefits or a family-first culture. And:
  • Sometimes, looks really are everything and you actually can judge a book by its cover. Nobody really wants to crack open a plain black or brown book labeled “Employee Handbook.” If you don’t want it to gather dust or be used to balance an uneven table, give it some visual appeal by incorporating color and graphics.
  • Meanwhile, there’s no avoiding the fact that you still need to clearly lay out important policies and procedures that have been reviewed by a labor attorney who knows not only the federal rules, but those in your state and even city.

Remember, new laws and regulations take effect every year, which often needs to be reflected in your handbook and employment practices. In California, for example, new laws that kick in January 1 include one that bans the use of the federal E-verify federal system to check on the citizenship status of employees and job applicants. A new law for New York employers, effective in January, strengthens rules limiting the ways they can legally account for pay differences between male and female employees.

Balancing the legalities with the promotional purposes of employee handbooks is achievable, and well worth the effort.


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FahrenheitHR helps organizations make informed decisions on employee-related challenges. Built by HR professionals, FahrenheitHR provides both fractional and project-based consulting services, including: executive search and talent acquisition, HR compliance and policy, executive coaching, organizational effectiveness and compensation, and benefit plan evaluation and development.