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How To Write An Employee Manual That Employees Will Actually Read

September 3, 2020 Jeff Bradford

I recently read our company’s employee manual — and I was surprised at how good it is. Our manual is different than most in that it sprang up from within the company, rather than being handed down from on high by the CEO (me). This communal approach resulted in a handbook that is more about who we are than about rules.

In this article, I’ll explore what I learned from reading an employee manual written by employees and suggest how you might put these lessons to use in your own company.

Fully Alive, Rooted In Values

Our employee handbook begins with an immersion into our company in real-time. You can do this, too, by providing links to your social media feeds as well as a link to your blog — as long as it is regularly updated. (Everyone in our company contributes about one post per month to our blog.) These links in an employee handbook assure that it won’t become a moribund tome of old ideas and old ways, and it keeps you honest because it is easy to compare who you are with who this book says you are.

Following right behind these links, on the same page, is a listing of our core values and core purpose. In your employee handbook, you might also consider juxtaposing the immediate and the timeless in order to communicate that your commitment to staying current is grounded in an unwavering commitment to what you stand for.

Getting To Know Us

Next are short biographies of our team members that combine the personal and professional. Consider including a short history of each staff member’s career, an overview of what they do at your company, and what they value. This gives a sense of who the person is, not just what they do. For example, my bio says I “place a high value on our writing abilities and organized creativity.” You’ll also learn, “He can be heard singing and whistling when he is strolling down the hall.”

Whether you take this exact same tack, consider making your employee handbook more engaging by injecting it with more personality. Strive to share your company’s DNA, not just your rules.

Setting Expectations

Again, I think it’s important to make your book personal, and more about people than policies (or, at least, an equal emphasis on both). Show how you relate to one another, work as a team, and appreciate one another as individuals. This matters as much as insurance benefits and vacation policies when it comes to creating a place where people enjoy being.

For example, in one section of our handbook, we explain the Bradford Buddy System, whereby new hires are partnered with a seasoned staff member to show them the ropes, and “to have a designated resource for discussing things and/or asking questions that may seem uncomfortable to address in front of a superior or the whole group.”

I’d also suggest clearly laying out what’s expected of any team member. This should describe the attitude that successful team members demonstrate, more so than the specific expectations of their job.

Where The Bathrooms Are

Of course, your handbook needs to communicate more than your company’s personality. It also needs to pass on nuts-and-bolts information about how you work.  This is why the high-touch information in previous sections should be followed by very specific, no-nonsense information about how you work. For us, this includes things such as: the regular meetings we have and what your role is in these meetings, the regular fun things we do and how you can participate, what stuff in the refrigerator you can consume and what is strictly for clients, when to empty the dishwasher (whenever it needs it), how our slightly weird thermostats work and, grammar-wise, never to use an Oxford comma or double-space after a sentence, to a name a few rules of the road.

But even this rather mundane information is communicated in a voice — consistent throughout the book — that sounds like a friend talking to a friend, versus a boss talking to subordinates. Think about the voice of your employee manual. Is it approachable? Is it consistent?

How To Be Great

There should, of course, also be information about company policies and perks. But instead of the usual legalistic CYA pablum found in the typical employee handbook, most of the rest of the book should be about how to excel at being a member of the company. At our company, these topics include how to run a client meeting (complete with a sample agenda), how to write a blog, how to take a photograph that a news outlet will use, how to pitch a story, how to write well (with links to lots of examples), what clients expect and how to proactively exceed their expectations. If you include this kind of mentoring information in your handbook, it will be a valuable resource to your employees, not just a rulebook that they only read when they’re in trouble.

Your handbook should be a truly remarkable document — something that new hires (and 20-year-veterans) will actually want to read, because it honestly and clearly tells them who you are, what kind of people are likely to succeed at your company and how they can be one of them. I’m proud to be part of a company that knows itself well enough to lay all of this out over 47 well-written pages and is confident enough to share it with everyone on the team.

Originally published in Forbes.

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