As an organization, you invest significant time in creating rules, regulations, and policies to support a healthy, productive work environment. Since you want employees to regularly reference this information to find answers, gain clarity on expectations, and follow the correct procedures, you need an employee handbook.
But without the right presentation and formatting, new hires might sign the acknowledgment form and forget about the handbook. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore what goes into creating an engaging employee handbook and offer actionable tips to get started on yours today.
The Purpose of Employee Handbooks
Employee handbooks are living documents that contain policies and procedures that help the organization run. They also ensure legal compliance and protect employees and employers by providing clarity around what’s expected.
“Employee handbooks are important because they set expectations: They clearly outline who you are as a company, what you expect of your employees, and what’s allowed and not allowed,” said Emily Goodson, an HR consultant specializing in organizational culture and inclusion. “People often make fun of them, but they’re so important, and it’s essential that they’re accessible and easy to read,” she added.
Employee manuals often reiterate information that’s shared elsewhere, and they serve as a single source of truth for employees.
“Practically speaking, employee handbooks are where you share company policies and information to remain compliant. But they’re also a code of conduct to introduce how people are expected to behave, and today more than ever, we use employee handbooks to talk about how work gets done,” said Amy York, founder of Her Scout, a recruiting firm for female founders. “This is information that most often gets talked about in different forums and in different ways, but it’s essential to have a central document to store it in,” she noted.
Elements of an Employee Handbook
Regardless of where your company is located, your employee handbook will cover similar categories of information. But the specifics of those policies, regulations, and statements will depend not only on where you’re based but also on what’s important to your organization.
“There must be very firm anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, and information on what employees can do if they experience concerns or have questions, as well as all the necessary information to ensure legal compliance,” Goodson explained. “Every company is different, but I also think some can’t-miss sections are on how you reward people, how you determine what to pay people, and how you determine when to promote people,” she added.
Employee handbooks should also provide legally required notices, answer questions about remote work, clarify dress code, share company values, discuss sick leave, and more. As you start to build your own employee handbook, use the following sections as inspiration.
Welcome and Introduction: Company's Mission, Vision, and Values
In this section, tell the story of the company, including how it came about and why. Share your mission statement and company values — but if you haven’t yet formulated your values, avoid making them up on the spot.
“That needs to be an entirely separate exercise,” York said. Values have the power to attract prospective employees, help retain existing ones, and act as a behavioral north star for your organization. It’s worth putting dedicated time, effort, and resources into formulating them rather than spinning them up for the sake of the handbook.
Cover everything from how employees are classified to employee rights and expectations for behavior. In their handbooks, companies should share policies like the following:
- Worker classification: Define early on the criteria for employees to be classified as full-time, part-time, full-time equivalent, contractor, and more. Do so up front because employee classification will determine what sections of the handbook apply to which employees. Talk about at-will employment, if applicable.
- Remote or hybrid policy: If you’re a remote or hybrid company, outline expectations for core working hours, if any, and establish expectations for communication. You’ll also want to discuss timekeeping, IT support, and security expectations, among other topics.
- PTO policy: Your paid time off (PTO) policy should explicitly outline the situations in which employees are permitted to utilize their PTO. Discuss vacation time accrual and holidays. Explain the different types of leave, including sick, disability, personal, bereavement, and family medical leaves, and specify whether PTO is applicable for bereavement, family leave, and jury duty, or if separate leave exists. Also, be sure to outline how employees can go about requesting time off. Check out our time-off policy template for a comprehensive framework for managing employees' PTO benefits.
- Code of conduct: Establish clear expectations for employee behavior. Communicate a zero-tolerance policy for harassment, discrimination, or bullying of any kind. Detail expectations for computer and social media use.
Benefits and Perks
Cover details about employee benefits, including non-compensation pay, stock options, and other perks. Briefly outline information on health insurance, life insurance, employee assistance programs (EAPs), and retirement plans, and let employees know where they can find more in-depth info on these benefits.
By law, companies are required to include a number of compliance-related policies. These will vary depending on the size of the organization, geographical location, and location of employees. But at a minimum, most organizations will have to share anti-discrimination policies, workplace safety regulations, and family leave policies. Refer to your jurisdiction’s applicable laws and obtain legal review to ensure compliance with employment law.
Agreements and Acknowledgment
Most companies ask employees to sign a confidentiality agreement. If your company has one, share your confidentiality agreement along with a statement with a few examples of the kind of information employees should not disclose to external parties. Employees will also need to sign an acknowledgment page confirming receipt of the handbook and their agreement to make a good-faith attempt to comply with the information contained. You’ll also want to include a line or two about the handbook being subject to change.
How to Get Started
Creating an employee handbook from scratch can be intimidating, but it doesn’t need to be. Here’s how to get started.
When it comes to stakeholders, creating a great employee handbook begins with soliciting buy-in from leadership and ends with a review by legal. Start with leadership and work to earn their authentic buy-in. “A lot of the time leaders may look at the employee handbook as just a collection of policies, but it needs to be more thoughtful than that,” said York. “They need to be able to speak to the document, care for it, respect it, and refer to it so it doesn't just become another document living somewhere that never gets referenced,” she added.
Sometimes, writing the employee handbook may even clue you into the need to create workplace policies, making it all the more necessary to pull in leadership. York once worked at a startup that didn’t have a parental leave policy until the need for an employee handbook nudged them to develop one. “There is sometimes policy creation that happens alongside the creation of the employee handbook, and you need to have buy-in from the top,” she said.
Moreover, you should ensure the employee handbook has the backing it needs to be taken seriously. “It’s essential that the CEO, president, and executives are involved, aligned, and are willing to stand behind the handbook,” Goodson said. “And of course, you need legal’s review to make sure you're in compliance with everything.”
Depending on the size and available resources of your company, you may pull in legal from the beginning or simply share the employee manual with them for final approval. Either way, it’s essential that an employment lawyer review your handbook before you begin sharing it with employees. Doing so protects all parties involved.
Reach out to your community.
Rather than starting from scratch, reach out to your HR community for guidance, examples, and sample language when you’re building out your organization’s employee handbook.
“I always like to survey and connect with my own network as an HR professional to understand what the standard is, what other companies of our size and backing are doing, what some of the trends are, and what we can do differently where it feels important to us,” York said.
Use a template.
Human resources teams are all too often a team of one — which means you’re busy. Templates streamline the writing process by giving you a plug-and-play model that allows you to personalize the handbook to your culture and values while hitting all the core sections. Opt for a full employee handbook template or curate a selection of policy templates to create your own.
Rohrer added that professionals often feel like, “‘You want me to create an employee handbook that is legally compliant, that people will read and that makes sense for our policies, when we barely have policies, and I'm just a team of one?’” she said. “That's the reality for so many HR leaders.” Templates give you the guidance and structure that make it easy to start and finish your employee handbook.
Bring your company culture to life on the page.
Your employee handbook should reflect the company’s core values, mission, vision, and vibe — both in what it contains and how it’s presented.
For some companies, like small businesses, startups, or tech companies, that will mean using an active voice, engaging language, and a casual tone. For others — like law firms, professional services consulting firms, and large, established corporations — the handbook will echo a more traditionally professional approach with pared-down language, passive voice, and an emphasis on legally binding verbiage.
Employee surveys are a good moment to touch base with your workforce about the handbook...[Ask] ‘Is there anything we missed? Is there anything we could explain better?
Creating a stellar employee handbook isn’t just about the information you include but also how you present it.
Opt for a digital employee handbook.
Deciding between creating a digital or a physical handbook? Digital handbooks are the superior option. These documents allow you to make changes and update the employee handbook in real-time rather than needing to reprint. Plus, employees can access them on the go and from a variety of devices.
Put accessibility first.
The employee handbook is for all employees, meaning all employees should be able to easily access and understand it. For example, many people use assistive technology like screen readers to navigate the web. Online information should be organized in a way that is compatible with these tools so they can enable accessibility.
Follow the 7 Principles of Universal Design to make design and formatting choices that help as many people as possible access the document to avoid common mistakes that hinder equitable access.
For improved accessibility, Rohrer reiterated the importance of making content digestible. After being diagnosed with ADHD in 2023, Rohrer began to understand why she always wanted to break down large documents into easily consumable pieces.
“I didn’t have the brain capacity to focus on a 50-page legal document, and most people don’t — even if they don’t have ADHD.” This is just one aspect of accessibility, Rohrer points out. She recommended asking these questions as a starting point for accessibility as you put together your employee handbook:
- Can this be read with a screen reader?
- Is this available to be reviewed and consumed at an employee’s preferred pace?
- Could I better tell this information as a story? Data and legalese are difficult to retain, but bringing a narrative arc can help tremendously.
Store your employee handbook in the right place.
Handbooks should be easily accessible to employees. “I think it just has to be something searchable, something that you can get to from a desktop, a phone, a company app, or in a really robust HRIS that allows you to click around and explore,” Goodson said.
Opting to add it to your HRIS also simplifies distributing the handbook and collecting employee acknowledgments.
When Rohrer once had to update a policy mid-year to remain in compliance with California state law, the digital nature of her company’s employee handbook made it easy to do so.
“We were able to say, ‘Hey, this thing changed, I’m legally obligated to ask you to sign this paper acknowledging that you received notice of this change to California law,’ and were able to send it out through our HRIS,” she said. “Most HRISs also make it easy to collect employee paperwork and store it in their file.”
Establishing Regular Updates
Far from one and done, “employee handbooks really have to be a living, breathing document,” Goodson said.
Establish review cadences that suit your company’s needs. Startups that double their headcount in less than a year will need more frequent reviews of the employee handbook than established companies would. Generally speaking, organizations won’t need to alter the employee handbook too often, but you should include language letting employees know you’d like to hear from them if something is missing.
“I put a note at the top that says, ‘The handbook was last reviewed on this date. It will be reviewed again on this date. If you notice inaccuracies or have questions about it in the meantime, let me know.’ The law doesn't often change that much, and revisiting it once a year is usually plenty,” Rohrer said.
Employee surveys are a good moment to touch base with your workforce about the handbook, too. “In your end-of-year survey, or at the end of orientation for new employees, say, ‘Is there anything we missed? Is there anything we could explain better? It’s important to elicit employees’ input, too,” Goodson said.
Visit Lattice’s Template Hub
As an HR pro, you don’t have to go at it alone. Skip the stress of coming up with your own employee handbook from scratch and visit Lattice's hub of company policies templates to download sample company policies as a starting point.
- Employee manuals serve as a single source of truth for employees looking for company policies.
- Handbooks should provide legally required notices, answer remote work questions, share company values, discuss sick leave, and more.
- Using templates gives you a plug-and-play model that still allows for enough flexibility to personalize the handbook.
- As your company grows and evolves, don't forget to regularly revisit your handbook.