How To Create An Employee Handbook People Will Actually Want To Read

A handbook doesn’t have to read like an instruction manual. Here’s how to get employees hooked from page one.

How To Create An Employee Handbook People Will Actually Want To Read
[Photo: Flickr user Rodrigo Denúbila]

Ask someone to describe a typical employee handbook and you’ll probably hear words like “dry,” “stiff,” and “boring.” Let’s face it, most handbooks aren’t exactly page-turners. They’re documents designed to play defense or, worse yet, a catalog of past workplace problems.


But it doesn’t have to be that way. Your employee handbook should be the road map for how to operate within your company–an introduction to your culture and a guide that your employees interact with on a regular basis. If you believe in your company’s vision, policies, and procedures, you should want every employee to read and use them.

So here’s an idea: Write an employee handbook your employees will want to read. The handbook is, after all, often the first document a new hire receives, sometimes the only document all employees are required to read and acknowledge, and a document that gets reviewed, revised, and recirculated every year. Seize the opportunity.

Here are five strategies for creating an employee handbook that can excite employees and reinforce your culture:

1. Call It Something Else

Imagine if I had titled this piece: “Reader Article.” Would you have clicked on it? Probably not. Names like “employee handbook” and “staff manual” signal to your employees that the document is going to be long, laborious, and filled with boilerplate. So come up with a new name that engages employees, piques their curiosity, and conveys your company culture right off the bat. Examples can range from conventional (e.g., “Team Guide”) to unconventional (“The Way Things Work” or “Our How-To Book”).

2. Start With Your Mission

Every company should have a mission: the reason why your employees come to your workplace each day, rather than the millions of other workplaces out there. Your mission should engage your employees on both an emotional and intellectual level, establishing an exciting challenge they care about.

Start your handbook by telling your employees your company’s mission and values. That will set the framework for the rest of your policies and procedures, not only for the reader, but also for you, the drafter.


3. Write Policies That Personify Your Company’s Values

Building and sustaining a dynamic, engaging, and compelling company culture can be a competitive advantage in any industry. So use your handbook as a platform for helping your employees understand and deliver your culture and values.

Rather than copy and paste generic policies into your handbook, personalize them for your company. Explain your policies and your reasons behind them, and do it in a tone that’s consistent with the way you typically speak with your employees.

For instance, your dress code policy can articulate the image your company seeks to present internally and to clients. Your job vacancy or performance evaluation policy can explain your company’s commitment to developing employees and promoting from within. And your benefits policy can describe your company’s view on work/life balance.

4. Promote Your Perks

Employers, especially small businesses, are getting more and more creative with the benefits and perks they offer. From sabbaticals to employee appreciation to public service to continued learning, employers are finding ways to make the job about more than just the paycheck.

If you’ve invested in building programs or perks for employees, include them in your handbook. And don’t bury them deep in your table of contents–put them up front.

The rest of the handbook is filled with the expectations you have for your employees and how they are expected to invest in your company. Turn your handbook into a dialogue by telling your employees what they can expect from you, and how you plan to invest in them.


5. Don’t Attach It; Present It

Be creative with how you present your handbook. Skip the PDF. Instead, make it readable and attractive. Print it in color, bind it, or even wrap it with a bow. Plan an annual company event around presenting your handbook for the upcoming year. Or bring it to life with an interactive survey, playful quiz, or a reward in the middle, like a coffee gift card to congratulate employees on their progress.

These techniques are lighthearted, but they don’t undermine the value and seriousness of your handbook. To the contrary, they show just how important it is to you and how your policies and practices are embedded within your culture and mission. Your handbook is your employees’ admission ticket to an exclusive club: your company. Present it that way.

Employment policies are serious business. But for employees to take them seriously and incorporate them into their daily work, those policies need to be an extension of your culture, not a departure from it.

Even companies committed to investing in and building a dynamic culture often only use their handbook as a backstop to minimize risk rather than as a tool to build culture and create value. Take advantage of the opportunity to set your company apart from the crowd with an engaging and authentic employee handbook.

Nathan Christensen is the CEO of HRAnswerLink, Inc., an HR technology and consulting company headquartered in Portland, Oregon, which provides HR compliance solutions to more than 70,000 small businesses nationwide. Follow him at @nchrispdx.