Business owners with small teams of four or five people usually ignore (or aren't aware of) the importance of an employee handbook. Even the term "employee handbook" sounds overly official and may cause you some discomfort. However, there are many benefits to crafting one, including familiarizing yourself with state, local, and federal employment policies. The United States Department of Labor is a good place to begin your education. 

All of that aside, your employee handbook is a part of your brand culture. It introduces employees to your mission and vision and  communicates what is expected of them, as well as what they can expect of the company. No employer can run a successful business if communication is poor, and your handbook sets the mood for all of your communications, internal as well as external.

Make your employee handbook interesting enough to read.

Your handbook will not serve its full purpose if employees don't read it. A strongly worded legal document is very dry and boring and isn't likely to capture their attention. Besides that, you may not want to establish a culture that leans more toward a dictatorship and less toward a culture of cooperation and collaboration. Zappos, for instance, has designed their handbook as a comic book--superhero and all. Zappos is a fun place to work, and this is a great example of how the style of your document can align with your vision, mission, and values. 

Use visuals and color to enhance your employee handbook.

This document tells a story, so you can make it look like a storybook if you'd like. Use bold colors for page backgrounds, add caricatures or photographs that help to tell the story.

Hire an attorney or HR specialist to review or create your handbook.

While there are no rules around the style of your handbook, it still needs to meet legal requirements. Find an open-minded expert to make any necessary adjustments.

Employee handbook style examples:

Gusto's contributing author, Kira Klass, has pulled together a great list of companies that artfully blend culture and legal guidelines. Here are some examples:

Valve Software

Klass writes:

"With clever, cheeky comic strips strewn throughout the handbook, Valve keeps their employees' attention and conveys the attitude they'd like others to take about their work."

This playful excerpt sums up the generous perks and values.

On company perks and culture:

"Sometimes things around the office can seem a little too good to be true. If you find yourself walking down the hall one morning with a bowl of fresh fruit and Stumptown-roasted espresso, dropping off your laundry to be washed, and heading into one of the massage rooms, don't freak out. All these things are here for you to actually use... If we ever institute caviar-catered lunches, though, then maybe something's wrong. Definitely panic if there's caviar."

On the tactical side of things:

Valve addresses the more tactical pieces of information with a more forward approach. The handbook goes on to explain their annual performance review policies, including peer feedback. 

The Motley Fool

Klass writes:

"Ever playful and silly, The Motley Fool compiled their handbook into "The Fool's Rules" to best incorporate their favorite quirks and guiding principles."

The Motley Fool handbook gives a new meaning to foolish as they invite their employees to behave in the classic Motley-Foolish style: 

"We take special pride in calling ourselves 'Foolish' - with a capital F. Harkening back to Shakespeare, it is our calling card to be irreverent, to instruct and amuse, and to speak the truth. So, our Core Values can be summarized simply as 'Be Foolish.'

Be Foolish

  • Collaborative - Do great things together.
  • Innovative - Search for a better solution. Then top it.
  • Honest - Make us proud.
  • Competitive - Play fair, play hard, play to win.
  • Fun - Revel in your work.

Motley - Make Foolishness your own!

Austin Fraser

Klass writes:

"Austin Fraser's employee handbook is highly visual with bold colors and blocks, combining a sense of playfulness with the more serious down-to-business facts they need to include in their handbook"

The Austin Fraser handbook puts a casual spin on the typically dull time-off policies:

"To get over all the turkey, eggnog and general over-indulgence, Austin Fraser shuts down for three days over Christmas."

"If you want to book a holiday, fill out a holiday form and send it to your manager (you'll find this on the shared drive.) Also, send a copy to HR so they can give your manager a nudge if it hasn't been approved within a day or so.

It's my opinion that friendly language and light-hearted, well-branded visuals will achieve far greater things than a formal legal document. Employee happiness and loyalty are at the top of that list--and in a world where companies are competing for talent, that's non-negotiable.

Published on: Oct 7, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.