Writing your employee handbook is an important part of your business journey. Whether you’re a small business or a huge international conglomerate, a well-written HR handbook is a brilliant tool to protect yourself as an employer and let employees know where you stand on various workplace issues.
Every business sees things differently!
An employee handbook outlines your business policies and procedures, as well as the legal rights of your employees, what you expect from them, and any benefits they can expect to enjoy. If done well, your handbook serves as a brilliant reference for people at various stages of your company to know where they stand.
But is an employee handbook required by law? What are you supposed to put in it? Should employees sign it?
We answer all your questions and more in this guide on how to write an employee handbook!
Why Do You Need an Employee Handbook?
So, first things first, why do you need an employee handbook in the first place? If you’re a small business, you may be asking yourself whether it’s worth it to make a HR handbook for your team at all.
An employee handbook serves as a reference point for both you and your employees. It gives everyone a centralized source to turn to in times of uncertainty, outlining company policy on various facets of workplace behavior. This can include entitlement to paid time off (PTO), sick leave, anti-discrimination policies, harassment procedures and more.
There’s a lot to cover!
While these employee handbooks don’t have any legal ground, getting your employees to read and sign these documents can help to cover your back and demonstrate that employees who broke the rules have read the document and should have known what to do.
Similarly, the handbook can help team members who feel they are being treated unfairly to open up complaints according to the approved procedure.
What Goes Into an Employee Handbook?
So, what actually goes into the employee handbook? While every business’s handbook looks different, there are some universal sections that every employer should include for the reference of their employees.
From core values to employee benefits and social media policies, here are the main sections that you should include when writing an employee handbook, no matter what space you’re in or how big your company might be.
Company values and mission statement
What is your company about? Why did you start it? What does it stand for?
While many companies go for cliché statements like “we want to inspire change”, you might have unique core values and a mission statement that you want to make clear to your employees when they start working for you.
Think about your company and the type of work you want to do in the world. Whether you’re innovating technology, pushing social progress, or just trying to improve people’s lives, write it down and spell it out so new hires can see what drives the core of your business.
Beginning your handbook with these values and/or mission statements sets the tone for everything else.
Your employees are going to expect some benefits on top of their regular salary, so make sure that you highlight all the benefits they can expect from you in your employee handbook.
This can include things such as:
- Dental cover
- Health insurance
- Parking spaces
- Bonuses and performance review process
- Paid time off (PTO)
- Sick leave
- Retirement & 401K
As well as these general benefits, you might also want to cover perks that are unique to your company, such as special access or discounts to products that are available only to your employees.
It all depends on the type of business you run.
Code of Conduct
Your code of conduct tells your employees how to behave while at work, and in some cases, while not at work too. For example, you can outline your policy on acceptable workplace language, as well as the expected dress code and your rules regarding smartphone and device usage during work hours.
You can also outline your drug and alcohol policy, as well as guidelines for conflict resolution that aim to keep the peace among team members inside the workplace.
Social media use policies are also very common in employee code of conduct sections these days. For example, you might dictate that employees must not talk about their work or their employment directly on social media.
Bad-mouthing the company on Twitter or LinkedIn will not be tolerated!
Workplace safety and security
Highlight the main information that new hires need when it comes to workplace safety in its various forms. Depending on the type of business you run, this could cover topics such as:
- Fire drill procedures
- Fire extinguisher locations
- Correct PPE
- Navigating the workplace safely
- Using equipment/machinery safely
- Reporting spillages
- Emergency responses
- First aid kits
There are many facets to safety and security in the workplace that vary from business to business. For example, a simple office likely has fewer safety considerations than a factory operating heavy machinery.
Create health and safety guidelines that work for your particular business.
Hours of Operation and Leave policy
When developing an employee handbook, you must outline how you expect employees to spend their time. For example, how does your sick leave work? Do employees get paid if they are sick? Do you have paid time off (PTO) and how many days PTO do you offer annually?
Outline everything they need to know.
Your hours of operation let workers know what times you expect them to be working, unless you offer flexible working hours. You also need to cover your expectations for things like leaves of absence, work breaks, lunch times, smoking breaks (if applicable) and how all of this is divided among your employees.
However you expect your employees to spend their time working and taking breaks or time off, make sure that it’s outlined in this section of the policy manual.
Digital conduct and social media policy
Though we touched on it earlier, digital conduct and social media policy is an essential part of creating an employee handbook, so it often requires a dedicated section.
If included as a clause in the employment contract, it’s legal for a company to fire an employee if they post something on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn etc.) that reflects badly on the individual and/or the company as a whole.
When posting online, employees are essentially acting as representatives of their employer, so they must behave carefully. Different employers have different social media policies, some of which are stricter than others.
Employees should make no assumptions!
For example, some companies may terminate an employee for bad-mouthing their boss online, whereas others may be more tolerant of online gossip if it’s mostly kept between private friends and family members of the employee on a private Twitter account, for example.
Some companies may discipline or terminate employees for saying discriminatory or lewd things online, or perhaps for posting drunk photos that don’t reflect well on them. It depends on the image that the organization is trying to uphold for itself and its staff.
Every employer has their own boundaries!
Anti-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Laws
Although we’re making progress, many people from minorities still experience harassment and discrimination in the workplace. This is not acceptable, and you should clearly outline your employees’ rights regarding discrimination and harassment protections, as well as the procedures to follow for raising complaints.
According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, people in your workforce may experience discrimination or harassment due to:
- Equal Pay/Compensation
- Genetic Information
- National Origin
There are also additional factors to consider, such as LGBTQ+ people, cultural beliefs, and more.
Legally, you should list all of the current federal, state, and local laws that apply to your workforce when it comes to dealing with discrimination and harassment. You should also include details on the disciplinary measures taken against employees who show discriminatory behavior or who partake in harassment.
Nondisclosure and Conflicts of Interest
If you’re in a highly competitive industry, you might wish for your employees to sign an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) that prohibits them from disclosing private data about your business with outside sources.
You may also want a section about conflicts of interest and how employees should deal with them.
For example, if you have a part-time employee who is approached by a competitor who wants to hire them part-time simultaneously, you may find that this is a conflict of interest for both the employee and your company. In most businesses, working with competitors is a huge no-no, as it’s against the whole spirit of working to make your company the leader in its space.
Consider your policies for non-disclosure and conflicts of interest, making it clear how you as the employer intend to handle these scenarios when they arrive.
How to Create an Employee Handbook
When creating an employee handbook, it can be hard to know where to start. First things first, you need to start getting ideas down on paper. Think about your business as a whole before starting to narrow in on more detailed areas.
What does the overall vision for your company look like?
Here we give you some tips on how to make an employee handbook, making it easy for small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) to craft an employee handbook that works for both them and their workforce.
Define your company culture and values
- What does your company stand for?
- What are your core values?
- Which causes do you care about?
- What is your mission statement?
- How do you want to change the world?
Ask yourself all these questions and more until you have a fully realized account of your company’s culture, mission statement, and core values.
Your values could be as simple as “we embrace change” or it could be much more complex, like “we aim to change the lives of our customers by proving x”.
The company culture is also important to think about – do you want your workplace to feel fresh and modern or traditional and corporate?
Sit down with your key management staff and HR department to start nailing down what your business looks like on paper and then relay that to existing employees and new hires.
Make company policies
While “make company policies” is a little broad, it has to be!
Different companies have wildly different policies due to issues such as their space, size, the type of work they do, the type of people they attract, where they’re based, safety considerations, industry best practices and more.
Although your policies need to work for your organization as a whole, also consider tailoring policies toward the type of people you’re trying to attract.
For example, if you’re looking to attract millennials in the gig economy, consider offering attractive flexible hours and allowing employees to take on outside work. On the other hand, if you’re looking for older and more experienced people, consider making retirement plans and healthcare a highlight of your policies.
Find policies that work well for both you and your employees.
Understand applicable laws
Depending on where your business is based, the labor laws that you have to follow at the local, state, and federal level may be different. You need to keep your employees informed about the laws that apply to them in your location, so make sure you’re up to speed with all the latest regulations that apply to you.
Laws can change, so make sure you’re up to date!
When making an employee handbook, include somewhere a list of the current federal laws, state laws, and local laws that apply to members of your workforce. Check the local government website in your area to get the information you need and make sure to present it to your employees in a way that is easy to understand.
Create summarized versions of each policy and procedure
It’s a good idea to create a summarized version of each policy and procedure as a sort-of “quick reference guide” for employers and workforce members alike. Consider using basic bullet points that overview your workplace policies and procedures, with separate sections for narrowing it on specific details.
This makes creating your employee handbook much easier.
Ultimately, your employee handbooks need to be easy to use, helping employees to find the information they’re looking for quickly and easily. Summarized versions of your policies and procedures help to make the employee manual more digestible and easy to read at a glance.
Choose a suitable handbook template
If you don’t have the budget to hire a specialized HR team to create your employee handbook for you, don’t worry! There are many online resources where you can find employee handbook templates for free (or cheap) making it easy for you to get started and start assembling your idea together.
You might also send a template to your HR department if you have one, allowing them to start filling in the blanks.
Though writing an employee handbook seems like a daunting task, using an employee handbook template is a great way to start the ball rolling and get the basics down on paper, even if you don’t end up using the template itself as the final product. Once the basics of the template are down, it’s easier to see where you need to make changes according to the specifics of your business.
Don’t underestimate the power of a good handbook template!
Make it readable
If you’ve ever spent time on the internet, you quickly learn that no one will read a huge wall of text. If your employees open their HR handbook to see nothing but pages and pages of long paragraphs, they’ll probably be discouraged from reading it. This is especially true if they’re not a text/reading style of learner, which many people are not.
Break up your paragraphs!
Hire a strong writer who can find ways to make your content well-written and engaging rather than bland and boring. Lots of companies use humor to make their employee handbook more fun to read, while others just cut out the fluff and get straight to the important stuff in as few words as possible.
Copy and formatting are crucial.
Also, be sure to work with talented graphic designers who can customize the layout of your handbook and the overall design to make it more appealing to the eye. You might also want to consider illustrations, charts, pictures, and infographics that help to explain your points to more visual learners and just keep the handbook interesting to look at.
Make it accessible
Not everyone is a reading-based learner. As such, you need to keep things accessible when designing an employee handbook. Consider bullet points, summaries, infographics, chapters, glossaries and more things to help your employee handbook be as accessible as possible to different kinds of people.
You also need to think about people with different abilities.
For instance, if you have visually impaired staff members, consider large text or audiobook versions of your employee handbook so that everyone can access and understand the information in the book equally. Take any disabilities or impairments into account so that everyone is looked after.
Also consider digitizing the employee handbook if you haven’t already. Digital handbooks allow your employees to access the document on their smart device wherever they need it, making it convenient to read and reference at their own pace. It’s also better for the planet as it avoids excessive paper use, which is always a plus. AirMason employee handbook software offers all this and more; you can sign up for a free trial and see for yourself.
Frequently Asked Questions
How much does it cost to create an employee handbook?
If you’re looking to create an employee handbook with the help of a specialized HR firm, then you’re looking at around $1,500 to $5,000 to create a custom handbook on average. Obviously the price depends on the scope of the project and who you work with.
However, if your in-house HR team is experienced enough, you might want to use an employee handbook template and get them to fill in the blanks with your various employment policies and procedures. This would be cheaper, though the results would be less polished and nice-looking.
It all depends on the result you want and how much you’re willing to spend.
What is legally required in an employee handbook?
Technically, an employee handbook is not a legal contract, so there’s not necessarily content that is “required”. However, there is legal information that you should include when writing an employee handbook, such as legal obligations as an employee and your team’s rights as employees.
You should include sections about topics like sick leave, anti-discrimination policies, employee benefits, codes of conduct and more. Your HR handbook should serve as a reference guide for the legal rights of both you (the employer) and your team (the employees).
Do employees have to sign an employee handbook?
Legally speaking, employees are not obliged to sign an employee handbook. There is no law dictating that employees must sign these books, so there is no way that an employer can legally force their employees to do so.
However, it is in the best interests of the company to encourage new employees to read and sign an employee handbook when they join the company, as it implies that they have read the policies and procedures and understand how to act within the guidelines.
It’s also recommended that employers get their employees to read and sign employee handbooks every time that the company rules are updated, confirming that the team is up to date with the latest regulations and cannot blame being misinformed if they don’t follow new rules in the future.
Does a small business need an employee handbook?
There is no law stating that a company of any size requires a HR handbook for its employees.
However, it is recommended that you put together an employee handbook, as it helps both you and your employees to know where you stand.
A good HR handbook acts as a reference for the behavior your small business expects from its team while also giving them easy-to-digest data about their legal rights and your various policies.