Innovative Employers Are Using Creative Handbooks To Engage Employees

These are not your grandparents' employee handbooks

By Kathy Gurchiek Nov 22, 2016
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  • Zingerman's: The Staff Guide for this Ann Arbor, Mich., business group includes playful graphics and even cut-out finger puppets of the two founding partners. The company says it has received so many requests for copies that it sells the manual on its online bookstore.

  • Valve: The employee handbook for this Bellevue, Wash., game developer and tech company went viral in 2012 when its color illustrations and humorous take on the workplace had people outside of the company interested in reading it.

  • Motley Fool: This provider of financial advice and stock recommendations based in Alexandria, Va., turned its manual into an interactive website.

  • Memoria Visual: The handbook for this web development and design company in Maia, Portugal, radiates the charm of a children's book with bright, fun illustrations of space monsters and rockets and a story theme of voyaging to Pluto.

  • Nordstrom: The handbook for this retailer, with headquarters in Seattle, is succinct. It's made up of two slides with the message, "Our One Rule: Use good judgment in all situations."

  • Big Spaceship Co.: This Brooklyn, N.Y.-based creator of mobile apps, websites and back-end platforms has created a manual with a hip tone that is reflected throughout the document.

  • GuideSpark: This San Francisco-based employee communications company, which creates customized training and informational videos for clients, uses short, YouTube-style videos to deliver information on medical benefits and other topics to its employees.

Are copies of your employee handbook gathering dust somewhere in the depths of your workers' cubicles because they consider the manual irrelevant?

Some employers are revamping their employee handbooks with big, bold graphics and a conversational writing style to make the manuals fresh, readable and engaging. Other companies are opting for videos or an online format instead of a printed one.

These are not your grandparents' handbooks.

Motley Fool

Motley Fool, a provider of financial advice and stock recommendations based in Alexandria, Va., turned its manual into an interactive website. It's open to the public and "doubles as a great piece of employer branding," said Laurie Sargent, co-founder of Stories Inc., in an e-mail interview with SHRM Online. Her Washington, D.C.-based company created the site.

Memoria Visual

Memoria Visual employee handbookThe handbook for this web development and design company in Maia, Portugal, radiates the charm of a children's book with bright, fun illustrations of space monsters and rockets and a story theme of voyaging to Pluto.

"Everybody wants to fly to the moon or Mars. Not us. We're aiming for Pluto. It's farther away, has a funnier name and besides, it's feeling down with all that 'you're not a planet anymore!' stuff. So we want to travel farther, be bolder, discover new ground and build something meaningful along the way," the book says.

The company notes that "A Voyage to Pluto" aims to present "what we do, how we approach work as well as our aspirations and values as a company. All in a fast paced story format with robots, skunks and a bright red cover."

The document functions largely as a "company culture" handbook rather than your typical employee handbook.

Big Spaceship Co.

This Brooklyn, N.Y.-based creator of mobile apps, websites and back-end platforms has created a manual whose hip tone is reflected throughout the manual. In it, employees are advised to "skip meetings at all costs"; add to the anonymous, crowdsourced office playlist; and keep food out of reach from the office's lunch-stealing canines. The introduction notes that the manual "will help you begin to understand our values and the way we make decisions as a team and as a company. Our manual belongs to you. Read it. Share it. Change it. Keep it close when you swim into the deep water."

Zingerman's Community of Businesses

Inc. magazine in 2003 said this Ann Arbor, Mich.-based food company had "the world's best employee handbook." The company has received so many requests for copies that it sells the manual from its online bookstore, according to Gauri Thergaonkar, ZingTrain community builder. ZingTrain is one of 10 businesses in the Zingerman's Community of Businesses and trains organizations on Zingerman's approach to business.

The handbook contains interviews with the director of the local food pantry that Zingerman's started in 1988 and continues to contribute donations and expertise to it; a word-search game; short profiles of department managers; and a page devoted to the company's self-study program that gives staffers the opportunity to become a "certified coffee taster of Zingerman's brews" or advance their learning in other company-related areas.

"I think people are purchasing it to get their hands on an example of an employee handbook that has been done well or that represents a company that they know is doing right by their employees," Thergaonkar told SHRM Online in an e-mail. She thinks a number of purchasers "are looking for a fun way to do something that can otherwise be pretty dry (but doesn't have to be), and that's why they look to ours."

GuideSpark

This San Francisco-based employee communications company, which creates customized training and informational videos for clients, uses short, YouTube-style videos to deliver information on medical benefits and other topics to its employees.

"The focus is more about educating and sharing HR info—the type of work traditionally done using an old-fashioned printed employee handbook," said Patricia Wyrod, business and legal consultant and founder of the San Francisco-based Think Create Group. The videos that GuideSpark, her former client, creates are popular with Millennials, she noted in an e-mail.

Valve

Valve employee handbook This game developer and technology company in Bellevue, Wash., notes in the introduction of the 2012 edition of its handbook for new employees that the manual "isn't about fringe benefits or how to set up your workstation or where to find source code." There's an official Valve intranet for that.

Instead, the book, which contains color illustrations, a dedication to the families of employees and an epilogue, includes an explanation of why staffers' desks have wheels (making it easier to move workspaces in order to better collaborate with others) and a cheeky glossary. 

The company is famous for operating with several hundred employees in a self-management structure with no bosses. A manager, for example, is defined in the company handbook as, "The kind of people we don't have any of. So if you see one, tell somebody, because it's probably the ghost of whoever was in this building before us. Whatever you do, don't let him give you a presentation on paradigms in spectral proactivity."

Valve co-founder and Managing Director Gabe Newell is described as, "Of all the people at this company who aren’t your boss, Gabe is the MOST not your boss, if you get what we’re saying."

Nordstrom

The handbook for this retailer, with headquarters in Seattle, is succinct. It's made up of two slides with the message, "Our One Rule: Use good judgment in all situations."

"That's the one rule we hand out to each of our employees when they start with us," a Nordstrom spokeswoman told SHRM Online in an e-mail. "We want them to feel empowered to take care of the customer, and this is one of the ways we do that."

Your Handbook Can Be Cool, Too

"The very first step to creating a great employee handbook is to know why you are creating one," ZingTrain noted in an e-newsletter that it distributes to about 8,000 people, including clients. "Is the primary reason you are creating a handbook legal protection or are you designing a document that is a resource for your business and employees?"

[SHRM members-only template: Employee Handbook]

According to Beth Zoller, a legal editor with XpertHR specializing in employee handbooks, work rules and employee conduct, it's best if the manual is designed with both reasons in mind. She recommended the following ways an organization can create a handbook that is both cool and compliant:

  • Make it fun and engaging. Companies should consider illustrating workplace rules using hypothetical situations, practical examples, anecdotes and narratives, Zoller told SHRM Online in an e-mail. A conversational tone can help draw an employee in and make it more interesting to read.
  • Use colors and visuals. Pictures, graphics and whimsical fonts can play a role in creating a handbook that is easier to read and understand.
  • Communicate workplace culture. Convey more than rules and policies; include the employer's core values, culture, mission and brand, and expectations for its workforce. The handbook can provide a glimpse of what life is like at the organization and tie the handbook to its brand.
  • Explain the "why" behind workplace rules. "In order to have employees follow workplace rules and fully understand them, it is important that employees see the reasoning behind them, which may motivate compliance," Zoller said. 
  • Include required notifications. "While compiling an employee handbook that is more engaging, an employer should not forget to provide any required notices that may be critical for legal compliance and to protect the employer's interest," Zoller said. This may include entries on topics such as employee leave, reasonable accommodation or harassment.
  • Remember it can be considered a legal document. "Even if the employer chooses to create a fun and cool employee handbook, it should not lose sight of the fact that an employee handbook is a legal document," Zoller said. "Certain policies are necessary to protect the employer's interest and may need to be relied on in case of a lawsuit." 

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