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Employee handbooks.

Like most small businesses, you probably have one – but are your employees using it? Unfortunately, the odds are not in your favor. Research shows that more than half of employees actually avoid reading employee handbooks.

It’s no secret that employee handbooks are one of the most important business documents a business can have. From documenting procedures to complying with employment laws, there are many important ways an employee handbook can help your small business. But your employee handbook loses value if your employees don’t use it.

Here are 7 tips to build an employee handbook your employees will be more likely to read.

7 Ways to Improve Your Small Business’ Employee Handbook

1. Schedule regular intervals to review your employee handbook content

Your handbook is only as good as what’s in it. If your employee handbook contents are out of date, your handbook can quickly lose credibility with your employees. It can also pose certain risks for you as an employer.

For these reasons, many Human Resources professionals recommend reviewing and updating employee handbooks annually. This usually takes place toward the end of the year so you can prepare for new workplace laws that may take effect once the new year rolls in.

But is once a year really enough? With middle of the year effective dates for many regulations, some employment law experts have dubbed “July” as the “New January.”

For example, in Massachusetts, the new Paid Family and Medical Leave law took effect on January 1, 2021, but some regulations took effect slightly later. As of July 1, 2021, Paid Family and Medical Leave can also be used to care for a family member with a serious health condition.

Because of staggered effective dates, mid-year reviews and updates to your employee handbook can provide time to incorporate changes. While this may vary based on your industry and size, it’s important to consider how often you plan to review your content.

Employee Handbook Bonus Tip: Always include the “updated” date in the footer of your employee handbook document and on the cover page so your teams know which version they are looking at.

2. Use better language throughout your employee handbook

What you say matters. Keep things simple by using plain language principles throughout your employee handbook.

This means writing in an active voice, replacing jargon, and being as concise as possible. If you can’t avoid technical terms, make sure you provide an in-text definition or include a glossary in your handbook.

Example Concise Employee Handbook Language

In the image below (provided by plainlanguage.gov) there are some examples of how you can simplify the language you use.

Example Simplified Employee Policy

Before: “If a holiday falls on a Sunday, it will be observed on the following Monday. If the holiday falls on a Saturday, the company will use the preceding Friday as a substitute holiday.”

After (from Trello’s handbook): “When a holiday falls on Saturday, we take off Friday. When a holiday falls on Sunday, we take off Monday.”

While most employee handbook policies rely on terms like “observe” and “preceding,” this type of language is often lost on employees. The “after” version used in Trello’s handbook is easy to understand and difficult to misinterpret.

3. Make your employee handbook easy to access

Do your employees know where to find your employee handbook? A recent study has shown that nearly 1 in 4 employees don’t know where their employee handbook is.

Spending time improving your employee handbook may be meaningless if your employees can’t access it. COVID-19 and remote work have highlighted the need to adapt processes and embrace electronic documents. Electronic documents are also easier to update ensuring your employees always have the most recent version available.

While some employees may still prefer printed documents, having an electronic version available is generally a good practice. Some options include:

  • Your Intranet site: If your employees are used to accessing information on your internal website, your Human Resources Intranet site can be a great place to link to your handbook.
  • SharePoint: Many organizations use Microsoft SharePoint to securely store and share internal documents. If your employees are already familiar with using SharePoint, this may be a convenient place to provide access.
  • Google Drive: As a cloud-based document storage platform, Google Drive has millions of users around the globe. This makes it a popular option for sharing your digital employee handbook with employees.

To figure out what option(s) works best for your employees, start by finding out where your employees are currently going to access information. This may include looking at your Intranet traffic, reviewing search analytics, and conducting surveys.

4.   Be true to your small business employer brand & company values

When most people hear “employer branding” they automatically think of businesses like Google and Netflix, but it’s no longer just for big businesses. Employer branding is crucial for small businesses too.

Although sometimes overlooked, an employer brand is just as important as your company’s public facing brand – and ideally, the two align. Companies with strong employer brands average 28% less turnover. Employees are also more engaged and likely to refer candidates for positions within their company.

As a first step to developing your employer brand, start by identifying your “employee value proposition.” What sets your company apart from others in your industry? What sets your employees apart? Take the time to talk with your employees and learn what they love most about working for your business and with their team. Use what you learn to craft your value proposition.

Once you’ve created your employee value proposition, you can use this to infuse your employer brand into your employee handbook. Here are some tips to do just that.

Ensure your policies align with your business’ core values

Take the time to review your employee handbook to ensure your policies are true to your values. For example, if you value transparency but many policies or procedures are vague, it may be time to look at creating more systematic processes and sharing these with your employees upfront.

Include customer stories or case studies to explain the “why” behind workplace policies and procedures

As much as we’d like to adapt all of our policies to meet our employees’ needs, this isn’t always feasible. This can be particularly challenging for small businesses. To help your employees better understand why a policy is a certain way, take the time to explain this in your handbook.

Customer stories or workplace case studies can be a great way to do this. For example, flexible schedules have become very popular options for employees. If you can’t offer flexible hours due to customer needs, share a customer story about how employee availability helped them. Focusing on your customer and mission can help put your policies into perspective for your employees.

Include photos and short stories or quotes from current employees

Social proof is popular with marketing – and for good reasons. You can adapt this to build your employer brand by showcasing photos of your current employees in your handbook and asking them to share what they like about working for your company. Also consider asking them to share a specific story about a time they felt your company truly lived their values.

Address how your company has (or is) handling employee concerns

Employee concerns are bound to arise, especially in wake of an ever-changing workplace brought on by COVID-19. Documenting how your company has addressed these concerns (and what you are doing to address current concerns) in your handbook can help bring some certainty to the situation for your employees.

Share how your company is ensuring an inclusive and diverse workforce

A reported 57% of employees want their companies to increase diversity and inclusion. Your employee handbook is a great place to let your employees know the steps your business is taking to do so. Whether you’ve developed a more inclusive hiring process or are creating a more accessible workplace, share the strives you are making and the “why” for doing so.

Include the benefits your company offers in your employee handbook

When you are deciding the contents to include in your employee handbook, don’t overlook your benefits section. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recommends including many standard benefits. This includes:

  • Holidays
  • Vacation
  • Sick Leave
  • Disability Leave
  • Personal Leave
  • Bereavement Leave
  • Family and Medical Leave
  • Jury Duty
  • Military Leave
  • Paid Time Off
  • Health Insurance
  • Life Insurance
  • Retirement and Pension Plans
  • Call-In/Report-In Pay
  • Training
  • Educational Assistance Program
  • Service Awards
  • Workers’ Compensation
  • Unemployment Insurance

In addition to traditional benefits, adding information about benefits unique to your business (like wellness programs or charity work) can help support your employer branding.

Employee Handbook Bonus Tip: Instead of just focusing on what you offer, it’s also a good idea to let your employees know how to access it.

For example, if you use CRI Payroll Services which offers a full range online payroll service for your small business, your employees will have access to a free downloadable mobile app. This app is a centralized location for them to view and track payroll information and see many of the benefits you offer. Consider including a section in your employee handbook to let your employees know how to conveniently download and use the app.

Seek employee feedback about your recruitment & onboarding process – and use it

When it comes to your employer brand, the more information you know about your employees’ experience, the better. This is particularly true when it comes to new employees.

Although orienting new hires may only take a couple of days, onboarding is the entire process of helping your new employees settle into their role at your company. Often, this process can range from several weeks to a year in length. This typically encompasses:

  • Orientation: Completing required new hire paperwork and forms (like I-9s and W-2s), selecting benefits, etc.
  • Introduction to your company: Welcoming your new employee to your company, sharing your values, and giving them time to get to know their co-workers.
  • Resources: Providing new employees with key cards, computers, office supplies, and other resources they’ll need to do their job.
  • New hire training: Teaching your new employees how to perform their duties.
  • Ongoing support: Providing regular performance check ins and feedback early on.

Although your employee handbook may not cover the entire process, it’s important to ensure most of your onboarding process is well documented so your employees know what to expect.

This is especially true when it comes to new hire paperwork and the orientation portion of onboarding.

To ensure your small business stays in compliance with state and federal payroll and employment regulations, a new employee orientation checklist is often a great addition to consider for your handbook. Here are some standard items to include:

  • Form 1-9: A federal requirement to verify your new employee’s identity and their eligibility to work. 
  • IRS W-4: A required form specifying how much to withhold from your employee’s pay for federal income tax.
  • New hire reporting notification: Reporting required to ensure compliance with child support enforcement efforts.
  • State tax forms: Requirements vary by state.

Additional items to consider adding to your checklist include:

  • Background checks
  • Drug testing requirements
  • Direct deposit forms
  • Benefit forms
  • Employee emergency contact forms

Once your onboarding process is documented and well known, take the time to ask recent hires for their feedback about the process. Use what you learn to make adjustments, as needed, and remain as transparent as possible throughout the process.

5.   Add a “welcome statement” from your company’s president

Your employee handbook is your chance to engage new employees and set the tone for onboarding. Including a welcome statement allows you to convey your company culture and share company vision with new employees.

For a modern take on the traditional introductory message from leadership, consider using a short video message from your CEO in a digital handbook. Motley Fool has a great example of this in their employee handbook.

6.   Make your employee handbook as visual as possible

Research shows that over half of the brain is dedicated to processing information. Visualizations like graphics and charts help capture your readers’ attention and often improve reading comprehension.

Infographics in particular are a good choice because they can be used in many ways. Here are some infographic types to consider including in your employee handbook:

  • Timelines: These can be very effective ways to share a high-level company history and show how you’ve grown or progressed throughout the years.
  • How To Guides: Visual instructions are often a lot easier to read than paragraphs of text. This can be a good format for documenting your procedures.
  • Comparisons: Comparison infographics can be a useful for side-by-side comparisons. Considering incorporating one into your manual to showcase the different benefit options you offer.
  • Lists: Bulleted lists are often a go-to way for sharing lists, but a visual infographic with icons or numbers can help your employee handbook standout.

7.   Go beyond the standard employee handbook templates

According to the SHRM, “one of the biggest mistakes HR professionals make when creating an employee handbook is just inserting their company’s name throughout a template.”

A better approach is to adapt your handbook to align with your company culture. The goal should be to make it more than just a legal document (even if it is). Here are some ideas to get you started:

Add real life examples of policy decisions

Incorporating case studies of how a policy or procedure was applied in a specific situation can help your employees better understand the context. Try to walk them through the thought process of the employee who made the decision, the factors they considered, resources used, and the ultimate outcome.

Explain your “growth ladder” or career paths

To help develop a more sustainable workforce, let your employees know what it takes to be successful at your organization. Consider mapping out common career paths and then include these in your employee handbook. A great example of this in action is Valve’s “Choose Your Own Adventure” section of their handbook.

Feature leaders and share where they started with your company

Like many small businesses, your employees probably grow with your company. If you have a few leaders who started as front line employees, consider creating a “leadership spotlight.” You can use this section to share their journey, personal growth, and how your company supported them along the way.

Include a “new employee tips” section with advice from current employees

When your employees share information and learn from each other, it helps build a sense of community. A “new employee tips” section or tips woven throughout your employee handbook not only provides new employees with advice they may have otherwise missed out on. It also empowers your current employees to share their knowledge showing them you value their unique insight.

How will you improve your small business’ employee handbook?

Creating a better employee handbook can seem intimidating, but it’s well worth the time and effort.

As you go through the process, a good rule of thumb is to keep the focus on your employees – and often this may mean adapting some policies and processes to better meet their needs.

With a full range of HR and payroll related products, tools, and true support, CRI Payroll Services can help provide immediate and personalized service to help with many of your Human Resource needs.

Learn how CRI Payroll Services can help support your employees & business.