Do you need to have an employee handbook for your small business?
That might be the wrong question.
While there are compelling business and legal reasons to have one, the focus on “do I gotta?” hides the real opportunity in creating an employee handbook—the opportunity to create a shared vision of what makes your company unique and wonderful.
Many employee handbooks are heavy on the legalese, setting out rules, policies, and dress codes, and explaining the expectations for a respectful workplace. All of that is important, but it’s also not that different from company to company. Focusing only on that is a missed opportunity.
Writing an employee handbook that breaks the typical ho-hum mold could provide a needed push to crystallize your vision and put it into words. It’s harder than you might think to translate your years of dreams and plans into a few inspiring pages, but it’s well worth the effort.
Get started with these six questions.
1. What are you all about?
You built your business for a reason or for a whole host of reasons. You had a dream, saw a need that you could fill, identified a challenge that excited you.
Your employee handbook has a special mission: telling workers why your business exists.
Identify your mission and a few key values that represent the purpose of the company. Use your handbook to provide short explanations of what these mean to you and how your company exemplifies them.
You can flesh out what your mission looks like in practice and how your organization strives to achieve it.
2. What is it like to work here?
Setting out your big-picture mission and the lofty values your organization strives to uphold is just a start. Bring this idealism down to earth with a description of the ways you want employees to interact, collaborate, and learn.
3. What’s your back story?
Share your origin story. This is another opportunity to connect with employees and share your vested passion for the company, while also (you hope) deepening their buy-in and willingness to advance your vision.
Share any quirky stories that led to the company’s creation, offer a brief timeline of its history, or share key milestones that got you where you are today.
4. Where are you headed?
What is your dream for your company, and where do you see it going in the next five or 10 years? Thinking about your goals can help you figure out the culture, employee structure, and skills you need to get there. And sharing all of that with employees creates public goalposts—a bit of accountability—and enlists the support and participation of the entire company.
5. What are your company policies?
The employee handbook is typically where your company policies are spelled out. These can cover anything from work hours and paid time off to whether children and pets are allowed to visit the office and how often employees get paid.
The advantage of including this information in your handbook is that it forces you to think through potentially thorny situations and come up with answers before you encounter a problem.
Do you expect 8 hours per day, but don’t care what time employees work? Or are you less concerned with the number of hours an employee works than with their ability to meet (clearly defined) targets at (stipulated) deadlines? Do some roles demand that employees be on-site during specific hours while others allow more flexibility?
Whatever your parameters, fairness demands that you apply them equitably. Writing up the policies for the handbook lets you to think about these questions and figure out what matters to you as you shape your workplace environment. It also ensures that everyone gets the same clear, consistent message.
Employee handbooks might address any of the following:
6. What are your legal obligations?
Small companies or those that are fully remote might not have a break room with a huge bulletin board to post the legal and safety notices that federal, state, county, or city laws may require.
These include notices about equal pay, overtime, family and medical leave, and workplace safety. Be sure employees know how to report a workplace accident or an incident like sexual harassment or discrimination.
Your employee handbook is a logical place to document these things.
As your company grows, you’ll be governed by more and more employment laws, so be sure to keep your handbook up-to-date on these important legal requirements.
Ready to break the ho-hum mold?
Employee handbooks can be so much more than glorified paper weights. It’s up to you to decide on the tone and makeup of your handbook as well as its length and level of detail.
You get to choose the format too: You can create a conventional paper or PDF document, or use a website, slideshow, or even an interactive video. It can be creative, fun, serious, or a mix. Above all, it should reflect your culture and your company.
Putting together your employee handbook may seem daunting. It’s a significant step in your company’s growth and maturity, though, and can be a gratifying way to take stock of what you’ve built and think about where you want to see your company go in the future.