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Company Handbook Essentials: When to Write it, What to Include, and How to Share it

Kristen Craft | May 21, 2018

This guest post comes to us from Matt Koshko. Matt works with fast-growing companies, providing consulting services and best-practice advice around digital media & marketing. In addition to consulting, he has worked for several start-ups wearing many hats and maximizing impact across the organizations, mostly in customer facing, growth roles.

Why You Need a Handbook Sooner Than You Think 

Companies and organizations looking to grow over the next 12-24 months are nearly guaranteed to run into challenges that competitors, neighboring companies, and new ventures have been forced to overcome. The growth of any team requires leadership and standardization of operations across a number of factors.

Imagine a fast-growing company with 25 employees. Some issues they face might include:

  • The confusion that arises from operational procedures you WANT employees to follow but haven’t outlined
  • Misalignment on important policies, due to a lack of documentation
  • An inability to communicate the company mission, values, and culture when speaking with job applicants or new hires

You can imagine how any of the above could cause some serious headaches. As a small organization, it’s much easier to get the employee base to adopt policies, procedures, rules, earlier than later. With that said, let’s dive into a couple of the key pain-points a handbook can help minimize.

A) Fairness

Let’s face it. We’re all humans who want to be treated fairly. As an employee of an enterprise (whether SMB, non-profit, enterprise corporation,) each individual expects a to be respected and have the same workplace requirements as their colleagues. Clarifying expectations sets the stage for everyone, including managers and new hires. There are many subjects to include in a handbook to cover the “fairness” of a given workplace that. Without them, imbalanced expectations can become a point of contention for employees who see colleagues abusing their privileges.

B) Personalities

Each individual is a unique addition to your crew who will likely have varying political views, intentions, wants/desires, and emotions. The language used in a handbook should cover a broad audience; information should hold true regardless of personalities. Remember, someone in a senior manager role may have an attitude that undermines those of a less senior role, but that personality doesn’t override the common rules.

Timing and Handbook Must-Haves

Failing to publish company expectations is risky. But the sooner you do it, the more protected you are from much larger problems. So when is the right time to roll out a handbook? This isn’t an exact science. Every new employee who joins the organization who’s NOT indoctrinated at the start is simply adding to the potential future complications. Several times I’ve seen companies at about 12-15 employees operate without a published handbook, but in a few cases, it was evident the need presented itself.

Without a handbook, small situations can escalate quickly, causing unnecessary tension or strife. Uncertainty can erode the respect you want to engender between employees. Without a handbook to reference early on in the relationship, how will you hold everyone to the same standard? In terms of timing, if you wait until an ugly situation arises, you’ve waited too long.

Don’t delay, for fear of not getting it perfectly right the first time. It will evolve over time as your company grows. Expectations change, new challenges arise, and laws are introduced that need to be factored into the overall content. Let’s summarize some important sections to include in the first pass for your handbook.

Culture

Give a fun, uplifting summary of the company culture that promotes how communication is handled, information on the use of company-wide tools such as Slack, the expectation on individual behavior and teamwork, and anything else that contributes to being an inclusive organization. If you have game night every other Friday – mention it!

Code of Conduct

You’ll want to include mention of activities that may warrant cause for termination. These may include but are not limited to sexual discrimination, abusive language, threats & intimidation, sexual harassment, or failure to comply with policies.

Discipline Policy

Your organization should outline a series of steps that take place when employees are failing to adhere to responsibilities and/or outlined policies. Though you will likely adjust over time, it’s important to set expectations about how management addresses problems, documents them, and potentially terminates staff.

The nature of the policy is tricky, since there may be sensitivity from employees who feel they were not provided opportunities to improve. Clearly stating procedures to be used for communication and documentation of disciplinary actions are important whether it be verbal, written, suspension, demotion or termination. In fact, part of the policy should likely include a step for initializing a Performance Improvement Plan (aka P.I.P.).

However, it’s also important not to over-explain the steps that will be taken. Since these details could be binding to an employee, if you don’t find your company always follows the steps you’ve outlined, there is also the possibility (especially when it comes to termination) that an employee who’s under disciplinary action could question why one of the steps was skipped or that the policy wasn’t followed as outlined.

Ultimately, be sure to seek legal guidance in accordance with your laws to protect both your employees and organization.

Employee Benefits

You may or may not provide benefits (like Healthcare coverage) but if you do, each should be listed along with the financial coverage by the company. All of the fine print that comes with each benefit should be covered in a separate documentation.

Schedules, Time off, and Leave

Any implicit expectations should be made explicit. Make it clear how work hours are defined for a given role or perhaps across the company, along with the approval process for alternative hours. Be clear how you expect people to communicate their time off. Some companies have a formal request process, while others rely on a shared calendar or Slack. You should also clarify your stance on remote work options or perhaps ‘work from home’ days when the weather is less than favorable.

You’ll need to include, though carefully, policies/rules about time off, vacations, sick/personal time, all of which are likely dependent on your state or national laws. For instance, are employees subjected to earning vacation on an accrual basis? Are they guaranteed a minimum of 3-weeks and can take it however they wish? What about sick days?

Keep in mind, there are also cases of family-related medical leave, court days (jury duty), and even voting. You’ll need to understand laws that apply to your organization & location for specifics.

Don’t leave parental leave policies undocumented. If you want to be an inclusive workplace, clarify parental leave policies upfront, so that no employee has to balance the discomfort of morning sickness and the discomfort of navigating a vague leave policy.

Dress Code

Again, be explicit. Different people have different definitions of what it means to dress “professionally”. If you want to require certain attire or state that certain attire is not allowed, such as wearing flip-flops, it’s important to make it clear. Not everyone will immediately know they must wear long pants and are NOT allowed to wear shorts on days where it’s blistering hot. You’ll want to be careful the requirements do not point to any gender stereotyping, as well.

Expenses/Reimbursement

Your employees will likely question if they can be reimbursed for a purchase such as for software that allows them to better perform their expected responsibilities. You’ll want to spell out what forms of expenses can be reimbursed, the limitations and requirements, and procedures to get approval for any given reimbursement.

Drugs/Alcohol/Weapons

It probably goes without saying that you should state what’s allowed, if any, from a drug-use perspective. Additionally, if your organization participates in a happy hour every Friday, you should consider including details about what’s allowed, within reasonable boundaries, and what is not. While not related, similar policies may need to mention whether or not concealed (and not concealed) weapons are allowed in the workplace.

Acceptance & Agreement

Be sure that employees across the company read and agree to, by signature, the document details. While many employees may not read every word, a signature is an important piece of the puzzle for future reference in cases where procedures are broken or termination comes in to play. There are really two parts; acknowledgment from the employee they’ve read the document and a signature stating they agree to the details.

Sharing/Rollout/Iteration

Implementing a handbook with a sizable company is a bit more challenging than rollout among a dozen people. The rollout process doesn’t need to be difficult, however, and a few things can make the process far easier.

First, it’s important that the announcement of a handbook and/or distribution comes from a person of authority. Normally upper management is part of the rollout/distribution process, or it’s from someone who’s responsible for HR/Human Resources.

Second, managing capturing signatures doesn’t need to be complex. In fact, services such as DocuSign and PandaDoc allow you to send documents, track the acceptance, and capture signatures while delivering signed copies to the proper parties.

Last, be sure to include an online version because you’ll likely need to make adjustments over time. Pay attention to the questions people have, and use these questions to inform future versions of your handbook and what’s included.

If you’re really feeling confident in your document, you could even make a public copy. After all, wouldn’t you want to attract new staff who already have an idea as to the details of your handbook? It sure does make hiring the right people a BIT easier! Some companies publish blog posts or decks on Slideshare to help communicate the company mission and values. Increasingly, candidates expect to learn about the employee experience before they join the team or even before they apply. Make your handbook part of your employer branding, so that you can continue to attract the best possible employees.