You're well aware of how important it is for employees to understand and follow HR policies like paid time off and dress code. The challenge is that communicating about policies is always a delicate balancing act. On one hand, policies have to be simple enough to be easily understood and acted on. And on the other, policies have to be precise enough and complete enough (Hello, legal department!) to protect the company.

How can you articulate each policy so it makes sense? How can you organize all these policies so employees can find them when they need them? Start by creating an employee handbook.

Here's the premise: Policies form an important part of the employment equation, so let's make it easy (and enjoyable even) for employees to learn more about them.

A handbook can do that for you. It helps new employees understand the rules of the road. It also serves as a reference for longer-term employees--a place to double-check how much time off they get or what to wear when visiting corporate headquarters. In short, a handbook provides information that helps employees succeed (so the company does, too).

The handbook doesn't need to be a huge document, or an expensive one. It doesn't even have to be a printed document--it can be posted on your intranet or built on an app. 

But what's most important about creating a handbook is this: It can't be scary. Yes, a handbook has to protect a company from legal problems, but it can't seem like it's written by lawyers. It needs to draw employees in and make them feel comfortable, not send them screaming into the night.

If you're beginning a project to create an employee handbook, here are some great ways to start.

First, do your homework.

Conduct research with:

  • Employees and managers (find out what each isn't hearing from the other and more. Ask, "What do you wish you knew on Day One (but you didn't)?"
  • Plan providers, call centers, etc. What do your employees not know, need to know, need to do better for themselves? What mistakes are employees making?  
  • Company programs and program and plan managers. Find out what is working well, what is not, what do you wish every employee knew about your program?
  • Employee surveys or questionnaires. What trends do you see in terms of misunderstood programs or procedures?
  • Senior managers. What do they want every employee to know, do, feel and what is driving them crazy right now?

Establish your objectives

Based on what you learned in your research, set up three overall objectives for your employee handbook, and determine how you will measure the success of each. 

For example, if your objective is to help employees take advantage of company programs and services, you might measure success by tracking employee usage in various programs or measuring overall increase in usage.

Gather content

Now it's time to gather content. An employee handbook typically covers those topics that Human Resources manages: policies, benefits, and programs to help the business attract and keep talented performers. 

Ideally, your employee handbook also includes information from staff areas throughout the company: Information Technology, Facilities, Legal, Human Resources, Marketing, Public Affairs, Investor or shareholder relations, Training, Community Relations. All these functional areas have information to contribute to help employees know what to do in a variety of situations and how to use the services or resources each area offers.

Employees don't think about company programs and services coming from a variety of internal functions--it's all "from the company" to them. It's silly for each staff function to produce its own version of a handbook because that weighs heavily on the arms of employees. That's why it's good to have descriptions of all the services and programs offered by all the staff functions in one resource in print and on line.  

Organize your handbook 

After you've gathered all the background material, you need to organize it. There are a number of different criteria you can use to do so. For example: 

  • Timeline of employment relationship (from joining the company through leaving)
  • Alphabetical order by policy
  • Order of importance or order of value to your employees (most to least)
  • Order of cost (most expensive to least)
  • Life events (see more on page x)

Whichever structure you use to organize your handbook, keep this in mind: Many employees will think differently. Even if you conducted research with managers and employees, and put your handbook together accordingly, there will be some employees who look for "life insurance" in pay instead of benefits, or who don't consider "sick days" as time off, so they'd never think to look for that policy in that section.

Make it easy to find information

Create a detailed list of contents at the front of the handbook (or on the homepage, if it's online.) Don't just list "Benefits," list specifics like "Vision care" or "Tuition reimbursement" with a page number (if your handbook is in print) or link.

If your handbook is in print, include an index at the back of the book. Book publishers tell us that roughly 50% of all people will go to the table of contents to find a topic, and 50% will head for the index. That's why it's important to have both in your handbook, so you're making it easy for 100% of your audience to find what they're looking for.

If your handbook is online, make sure your search function works well. Work with your Information Technology department or vendor to ensure that content is tagged properly, so employees can type "corporate credit card' in the search box and go right to the page they need.

Keep the language conversational--please, no legalese

As you write your handbook, read it aloud to hear if it sounds like one employee talking with another. Remember that you don't want the handbook to sound like a lawyer writing to employees (even if you work in a law firm). 

While it's true that more employees today sue their current or former employers, the employees who sue represent an extremely small percentage of your total employee handbook readership. You're preparing the handbook for the majority of employees, those wonderful folks who will not ever sue you. Nothing you say in the employee handbook will ever prevent someone from suing your company--what you say should encourage most employees to do a good job.