Employee Handbooks - How to Write One and What to Include

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You’ve been tasked with writing your business’s employee handbook. Maybe your business has grown to the point where it makes sense to get your policies in writing. It could be that you want to streamline onboarding for new hires. Or maybe your company encountered a challenging situation between coworkers, or even experienced an employment lawsuit, and you want to help protect yourself from future incidents.

Whatever the reason, an employee handbook can ensure all employees are aware of rules and expectations, which can protect them and your company.

But writing an employee handbook is quite an undertaking. How do you write an employee handbook and what sort of content should you include?

Here, we walk through what an employee handbook is, offer tips on how to write one, and give you an idea of what you should include.

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What is an employee handbook?

An employee handbook (also known as an employee manual or staff handbook) is a document outlining a business’s rules, policies, and expectations for their employees. It also lists what employees can expect from the employer. New hires are generally given a copy of the employee handbook with a form to sign, saying they’ve read through it and agree to the terms.

Why have an employee handbook?

It’s important for all your employees to have an understanding of your business’s policies and rules. Creating an employee handbook shows employees that there are consistent policies for all employees — the same rules and guidelines apply to everyone, and all employees are treated equally.

By clearly setting out company policies, employee handbooks can help promote a positive, productive, and safe work environment — free from improper or harmful conduct. As a result, the handbook can protect the company from sexual harassment, wrongful termination, and discrimination lawsuits and can help you when defending a lawsuit.

Do you need an employee handbook?

Depending on your business and where it is located, you must have certain legally required written policies (such as an antiharassment and internal reporting procedure policy for California employers). The handbook can be a useful resource to keep all the key policies in one place. Consult with your attorney to see what requirements apply to your business.

An employee handbook lists all your company’s rules and expectations in one place for easy reference. If an employee is expecting a baby, they may not feel comfortable asking their manager or HR about the company’s parental leave policy early in the pregnancy. If this information is contained in the employee handbook they can look it up themselves.

An employee handbook can also protect your company from lawsuits. For example, if an employee is let go, having an at-will policy clearly documented in the handbook can help show your company was legally in the right.

How to write an employee handbook

An employee manual should be well-organized and clearly written. Once you know what material you want to include, create an outline with a logical structure. For example, it probably makes sense to group all your business’s benefits together in one section. This makes it not only easier for you to write but also more useful for employees.

Shorter sentences and simpler language tend to be easier to read. Avoid industry jargon or confusing wording. Basically, the clearer and simpler the better.

After you’ve written a draft, share it with an employment lawyer to make sure everything is legally sound. Have a strong writer copy edit your staff handbook if possible, and have someone with eagle eyes proofread it for typos.

What to include in an employee handbook

An employee handbook should include your business’s policies, your expectations of your employees, and what your employees can expect from your business. It should lay out your legal obligations as an employer and your employees’ rights.

The first list, below, includes items that generally need to be in writing for legal reasons and therefore may as well be included in the employee handbook so everything is conveniently listed in one place. The second list contains items you can include at your discretion.

What employment policies should be in writing and included in a handbook?

Generally, the policies below should reside in an employee handbook that the employee acknowledges in writing. In addition, you may wish to enter into separate written agreements with the employee concerning other policies (e.g., arbitration of disputes, nondisclosure agreement, assignment of intellectual property rights, nonsolicitation agreement, noncompete agreement — consult with an employment attorney to determine what policies and agreements are appropriate for your business).

  • Equal employment opportunity (antidiscrimination)
  • Antiharassment
  • Antiretaliation
  • At-will nature of employment
  • Code of conduct
  • General employment information
  • Safety and security
  • Pay policies such as information on paydays, timekeeping, overtime eligibility, meal and rest periods, etc.
  • Benefits
  • Sick leave policy
  • Paid vacation policy
  • Family and medical leave — if a business has 50 or more employees, it often needs to have an FMLA policy
  • Assessment process for promotions and raises
  • Process for filing a complaint
  • Disclaimers — the employee manual contains policies and guidelines but isn’t a guarantee or contract of continuous employment. Also mention that the policies in the employee handbook can change at the employer’s discretion.
What else should you include in your employee handbook?
  • Welcome letter from CEO or founder
  • Company’s mission statement
  • Ideal company culture
  • Annual office closures
  • Behavioral expectations including attendance and dress code if relevant
  • Standard operating hours — include any rules about employees being onsite outside of these hours
  • Review process and how to get a promotion/pay raise
  • Progressive discipline or policy when behavior doesn’t meet expectations
  • A form to sign saying they’ve read the staff handbook and agree to the terms

Additional resources for employee handbook research

Here are some places to learn more about what to include in your employee manual:

Publishing your employee handbook

After you’ve written your employee handbook, you need to publish it in a format that every employee can easily access. Many businesses save their employee handbook as a PDF and/or have it available on their company intranet site. You may also opt to print hard copies, but a digital version is more environmentally friendly and easier to keep up to date.

Be sure to save past versions of your handbook and the dates of any updates. You may need to refer to these materials in the event of litigation.

Employment laws can be complicated and vary by business type and location. As an employer, it’s critical that you understand your obligations. As always, this post is just informational and does not constitute legal or tax advice. To make sure you have the right policies in place, talk to an employment lawyer.

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