How To Write Your First Employee Handbook

Thoughts from the leadership team at CharlieHR.

Here at CharlieHR, we spend a huge chunk of our days thinking about what HR best practice actually looks like in the 21st century. The answer is almost always: whatever works for your team. The fact is, software has made it easier than ever for you to reduce your admin and keep in touch with your people, opening up endless possibilities for finding new and innovative ways to work.

When you begin to explore and craft a unique workflow that truly matches your company’s needs, it becomes more important than ever that new hires are able to quickly and efficiently understand what’s expected from them, and what they can expect in return.

Enter the employee handbook.

No longer just a dry receptacle for legal obligations and disciplinary policies gathering dust at the back of a drawer, forward-thinking companies are using their “team bible” as an opportunity to distill and display the essence of their culture.

As a training tool, a benchmark and a welcome pack, it can serve so many different functions for your growing business that it’s a shame not to invest in making it extra special!

Why write an Employee Handbook?

If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Before you set aside the time you’ll need to invest in making your handbook a triumph there are a few things to consider. Although we’re usually advocates for starting as you mean to go on, there is a period in the evolution of your business where a handbook is probably a bit premature.

If your team is still small enough to split a pizza, you’re small enough to still be feeling out what really works for you in terms of process. It’s really important to resist trying to impose too much structure during this time. After all, it’s fun to be in discovery mode!

That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be putting in place processes that work for you, but you should also constantly challenge yourself to think radically as you test what does and doesn’t work for your team.

Most companies begin contemplating a handbook when they reach a critical mass of 6-10 people. This is around the time when when you need to consider:

  • Communicating key policies and processes to a large group
  • How to warmly and efficiently welcome a stream of new employees
  • Recording your company history for posterity
  • Easing the widening gaps between different teams

Before you begin

The best way to start is by taking the time to research what other businesses have done. Many companies have made their handbooks public, but also think about reaching out to friends and colleagues to ask them for any excellent examples they’ve come across.

This is also a good time to reflect on the main function of your handbook. Facebook, who are already famous, have designed a souvenir of the company mission statement for their employees to keep. It’s crafted with care and attention that conveys their ethos rather than day-to-day practical details. Facebook is now so sprawling that the most important thing is finding a way to make new hires feel special and included.

Before you begin, make a list of the top five things you would want your team member to say when describing your company to a stranger, and don’t be afraid of being flattering! Both the structure and content of your handbook needs to bring these points to life.

At Charlie, our sense of humour is really important to us (and is a key part of our communications strategy), so we decided to break up the important information with silly images and in-jokes. For example: we have snapbacks, but we know they’re really goofy, so we want to let any new team members in on the joke straight away:

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How you convey information is just as important as the content itself, and being misleading can lead to problems down the line. Know your tone and make sure that your handbook shows it off to its best!

Use your team

When it comes to writing your first draft, the best thing to do is involve the entire team. We wrote ours as an activity on an away weekend, with different groups taking responsibility for drafting different sections. This was then polished up by our communications manager.

You will need to make sure that your handbook is a working document, so resist the temptation to get 1000 printed out as soon as they’re done…no matter how amazing they look! Everything in it needs to be completely up to date, or it will just be dead weight. We tend to put our newest team member in charge of making sure it’s slick and shiny ready for the next person to arrive, but if you’re hiring fast you may want to just make this a permanent part of someone’s role.

If you set up the handbook so it isn’t a slog to read, it shouldn’t be a slog to update either. Short, sweet and simple is the key.

Structuring your handbook

Make sure to include page numbers and an index, so your team can come back to it whenever they need something.

We decided that we wanted our handbook to primarily function as a workbook, guiding new team members through their first day and week (and giving them something to do in quiet moments), so we seeded tasks throughout for them to use as discussion points with other team members. These included: setting up a test company to get to grips with the system, and a memorable quiz to introduce our basic security principles.

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The other sections were as follows. Feel free to borrow them for your own structure:

  1. Mission statement: We lay this out right up top in a personal note from our CEO.
  2. Elevator pitch: This includes three different versions of what the company actual does, so our team are all prepped to spread the word. We’ve written a one liner, a few bullet points, and something a bit more in-depth, so there’s something for every conversation.
  3. Company history: CharlieHR is our passion project, and we wanted to share our journey so far with the team. It’s fun to reflect back on where you started and how far you’ve come.
  4. Who do I talk to? One of the hardest things in a first week or month is figuring out where to go for information. Rather than packing the handbook full of facts, we made a simple flowchart of who to speak to.
  5. Stakeholders: from our customers to our investors, we include a brief introduction of who cares about us, and who we’re working to impress.
  6. Internal structure: As specialised as they are, we never want our internal teams to drift apart. We made sure to use simple language to explain what everyone does each day, so no one ever feels left in the dark.
  7. Company traditions: Our engineering team heads to the market together most lunch times (though anyone is invited!) and we go on a weekend away twice a year. We don’t want anyone wondering if they’re invited or not, so we make it easy for everyone to understand our social life.
  8. Giving feedback: This is a huge part of our company culture, and we’ve invested a lot of time learning how to do it better. We wanted to pass on these lessons and expectations straight away.
  9. Security essentials: Cyber security should be a priority for every business, but we’re obsessed with it. There are a few things we have to do every day, right from day one, so we introduce them here.
  10. Social media: Browsing your new company’s social media is a fun and easy way to learn how they communicate, but we also gently remind our new employees that they are public facing representatives of our brand. In short: we want everyone to look amazing online.
  11. Glossary: Give non-engineers a chance at understanding what’s going on with a crash course in basic terminology. You’ll be amazed at how many strange words and insider terms you all take for granted!
  12. Our commitment: Our team members come from all kinds of backgrounds, but we want everyone to know that when they work with us, we’re looking out for their best interests. You can never say this clearly enough.

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Should you make your company handbook public?

An increasing number of businesses choose to do this, as it can be a valuable way for potential employees to learn a bit more about your culture. We think open, honest businesses tend to be healthier and happier, so if that’s important to you then go ahead!

What doesn’t work is sticking it on the internet and then completely forgetting about it, so if you’re not going to remember to regularly update your links, we recommend you save it until it’s requested.

Even if you have a digital copy, it’s a nice touch to get it printed for someone’s first day. You could even all sign it instead of a card. Make it special and make it your own!

Are you proud of your employee handbook? Tweet us @joincharlie and show us what you did. We might even feature you on our blog.

Neo Sepulveda

Neo Sepulveda

Software engineer at CharlieHR 💻. I like climbing things quite a bit 🐒.

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