How to Build a Better Employee Handbook

Build a user-friendly manual that your employees will actually use.

By Theresa Minton-Eversole August 19, 2020
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​Whether you’re starting from scratch to create an employee handbook or embarking on a total refresh effort, there are important steps you can take to ensure your company has an up-to-date manual that employees will use.

Employee handbooks are a cornerstone of communication for HR departments and the first line of defense against potential litigation. So, first and foremost, the handbook must document the company’s compliance with federal and state laws and regulations. 

These compliance provisions are among the most important to include:

  • An equal employment opportunity statement.
  • Anti-harassment and nondiscrimination policies.
  • A Family and Medical Leave Act/medical leaves of absence policy.
  • An Americans with Disabilities Act policy.
  • A religious accommodation policy.
  • A background-check policy.
  • A contractual disclaimer and at-will policy/statement.
  • An employee acknowledgment form.

Also, handbooks should be updated to include new federal requirements, such as the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June protecting gay and transgender workers from discrimination, as well as new federal legislation, such as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which affects wage and leave policies until December 2020, says Skye Mercer, SHRM-SCP, an HR consultant based in Coralville, Iowa.

In addition, companies should document their policies and procedures regarding whistleblower complaints, nonretaliation, U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements, safety rules and accident reporting procedures.

“Don’t forget to include state laws and requirements specific to localities, too,” says Shawn Stout-Jough, SHRM-SCP, who runs the consulting firm Strategic HR Advisory, based in San Diego. 

During the pandemic, many HR professionals are adding communicable disease policies, which may include provisions for personal protective equipment, remote work, furloughs and layoffs, she adds. For some companies, these policies may be temporary, but for others, the new safety protocols will remain permanently in place.

Likewise, work-from-home policies are here to stay at many companies. 

“Policies addressing expectations for working from home establish protocols for engagement, for communication and for productivity,” Mercer says, “so you really don’t want to wait on something like that.”

Finally, she says, review the company’s equity, diversity and inclusion policies in light of the growing attention to workplace discrimination and social injustice.

Additional topics to address could include the following:

  • Exempt/nonexempt schedules, breaks and time-tracking.
  • Payroll procedures.
  • A benefits overview.
  • Standards of conduct.
  • A progressive discipline policy.
  • Security and equipment-usage policies.
  • A confidentiality policy.
  • Other company-specific policies and information as needed. 

There are many resources, including those offered by the Society for Human Resource Management, from which HR professionals can download exact laws and policy templates to get started. 

However, don’t rely solely on such sources. One of the biggest mistakes HR professionals make when creating an employee handbook is just inserting their company’s name throughout a template without customizing the language to fit the organization’s culture, experts say.

“There’s actually a lot of benefit to being an HR department of one because you have the flexibility to create [the employee manual] in your own vision,” says Christian Shinkle, SHRM-SCP, HR business partner for Aaron’s Furniture in Charlotte, N.C. “As long as you get buy-in from owners and you can bring the business value to it, your suggested changes and improvements go a long way. It becomes your own, and if you think you can do something better, then do it.”

Nontraditional Handbook Design Element

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Punch up the employer brand messaging in your employee handbook by adding some of these cool design elements suggested by HR consultant Skye Mercer, SHRM-SCP:
  • Pictures of employees with quotes about what they like most about working for the organization.
  • A visual timeline of your organization’s history with important milestones noted.
  • An infographic showing the organization’s mission, vision and values.
  • Tips for employees who want to get promoted. 
  • Leaders’ testimonials about how they’ve advanced through the company.

Highlight Your Brand

Another mistake HR practitioners make when creating handbooks is to focus so much on compliance and legal language that they forget to showcase their company’s employer brand, says Karen Seketa, vice president of talent for Element Three, a marketing consultancy based in Indianapolis.

Certain government documents have to be made available to employees. “But there are other places where you can put the right pictures and add the right verbiage to help reinforce your corporate brand and culture,” Seketa says.

For example, Element Three’s employee handbook features the company’s history, or story, and incorporates the company’s mascot—an elephant—throughout the manual to keep things fun.

Seketa says she uses her company’s employee handbook as a recruitment tool, sharing it with job candidates relatively early in the process. And when onboarding new hires, she gets their feedback, which she uses to improve the handbook and the hiring process.

“Some companies will only have the time and energy to be able to put together the most standard handbook,” Seketa says. “But if you can infuse a little bit of life into it by putting yourself into the seat of an applicant … that’s a good place to start.”

Shinkle agrees: “It’s important to keep the focus on employees. What’s the purpose of this sentence, and how does this help the employee? You want to make sure it’s legally enforceable, but if you’re writing it to please lawyers, no one’s going to care what’s in the handbook.”

In other words, be authentic and don’t include policies that don’t align with your practices. “This will only lead to employee confusion and company liability,” Stout-Jough says.

Manage Your Time

Once it has been decided what will go into the handbook, the next task is to make time to get it done. Here, project management and discipline are key.

Stout-Jough recommends setting individual time frames for achieving milestones in the production. “Ninety days seems a reasonable time frame for doing it yourself; outside consultants can probably do it in a shorter time frame.”

“There’s a lot to do upfront,” says Shinkle, who worked as an HR department of one for six years at a previous company. “I took the handbook down to the basic core, then scheduled a couple of hours for myself each week where I was just pulling templates, looking at what other companies were doing for inspiration, pulling online resources, and going through current documents and rewriting. Overall, the project took about two months to complete.”

Creating and updating the employee manual doesn’t have to be a solitary HR effort. Shinkle says he reached out to the company’s managers for feedback he could use to improve policies and update the handbook’s contents in a way that would help managers meet their daily challenges. Then, he prioritized what would be addressed immediately versus within the next scheduled annual update. 

And if the task proves too daunting for the time HR has to devote to it? Consider contracting outside help, which is often easier if HR can recruit an executive sponsor who supports and appreciates the project.

In any case, Stout-Jough urges HR professionals not to procrastinate.

“Make time for it. It can seem like a daunting task, but it needs to be a priority,” she says. “Don’t leave it in your to-do pile for a year. Break it up into manageable steps and create a project timeline so it’s not overwhelming. The employee handbook is essential to creating a strong HR foundation; it’s your blueprint for addressing employment-related questions and protecting your business.”  

Theresa Minton-Eversole is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va.

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