Employee Handbooks: the bedrock of great staff relationships

Your Employee Handbook is far more than just a useful onboarding resource for individual new employees. It's an opportunity to create the foundation for a happy and well-coordinated team and vibrant company culture. Here's how to make every page of yours essential reading for both fresh recruits and old hands equally.

The first day of a new job is usually unavoidably nerve-wracking - and not just for the incoming employee. After all you've invested in hunting for the best person for the role, recruiting, interviewing and hiring them, you want this relationship to last.

Your first and best tool for starting as you mean to go on is your Employee Handbook. In its primary form it's a terrifically convenient way to equip your new recruit with all the basic information you are required by law (the Employment Rights Act (1996) to be precise) to provide them with on arrival.

With compliance in mind, every handbook will include fully explanatory sections on:

  • Holiday pay and entitlement
  • Sickness leave and pay 
  • Other leave policies (eg bereavement, maternity and paternity, jury service, voting, religious observance.)
  • Handling of employee data under GDPR
  • Perfomance policies
  • Grievance procedures
  • Disciplinary policies and procedures
  • Disciplinary appeals procedure
  • Harassment policies
  • Health & Safety policies and regulations.

Further sections will deal with general information that applies to the business and the workplace. You can include things like parking spaces, where to get coffee, dress codes. All the things that help a new person feel comfortable and in the swing.

How salaries are paid is also vital to lay out clearly - how often, what payment method(s), what deductions are made, pensions and insurances, benefit entitlement and bonuses and so on.

Digital policies are also very important to include. Lay down firm rules about what can and can't be done on company equipment,including mobile phones, social media, passwords and IT security, customer and employee privacy and confidentiality. 

The same goes for vehicles or any other technical or mechanical equipment belonging to the company which employees use as part of their job.

Some businesses may wish to require a Non-Disclosure Agreement to be signed. It's also a good idea to provide guidance on potential conflicts of interest specific to your business, your competitors and the media.

Who do you think you are?

This is where it gets more interesting and creative. Your brand values as an employer are at least as important as your public-facing brand. They may well overlap considerably but they do require different thinking.

Your Employee Handbook is a chance to introduce your business to your new employees and define your employer brand values, your vision, your beliefs and your culture as a company and workplace.

The manual itself, whether it is online on an intranet, a physical book or folder, or both should be special. Invest time and effort into the copy and the design to communicate your messages to best effect.

Forget tired-looking pdfs with a logo plonked in the corner, destined only to gather dust in a desk drawer. Look on this as a key creative project and involve as many stakeholders as you would with a customer-facing document.

Consider the purpose

Ask yourself some questions about what you want this manual to achieve. Sure, the primary purpose is to lay down the practical information, the rules and standards that you want your employees to observe and what they should expect from you in return. But that's just the start.

Your Employee Handbook may or may not be a contract in itself (you will need to make it clear if it is contractual at the time it is given to employees). But it may one day show up in a dispute situation - it should demonstrate proof that you have defined your expectations, standards, policies and rules in such a way that no doubt can be cast. 

One of the great things about making sure it says absolutely everything in black and white is that if and when any sort of dispute, disciplinary issue or conflict arises, you can fall back on the handbook which can take a lot of personal sting out of a situation where you need to confront someone or make a difficult and contentious decision.

But don't stop there. Aim to excite your employees, to engage them in a shared pursuit of the goals and ambitions you have for your business. Make them feel welcome and valued. The tone of voice of your copy is particularly important here. 

Demonstrate that the business is fully behind open, friendly and considerate communication. You may be a business that has a traditional and formal flavour or the hippest work squad on the block, but your employees spend every working day together and it's good to lead the way on workplace etiquette. 

They need to know they are part of something and feel that "the business" is comprised of human beings and whatever professional etiquette is appropriate in everyday working life, when it comes to the crunch their well-being matters and they are respected. 

What format?

Just because it's called a "Handbook" doesn't mean you have to confine it to print. Digital staff manuals available on the company intranet or a dedicated, password protected website open up all kinds of different possibilities.

With web-based employee handbooks updating, adding or removing pages or even a few words is much faster and easier and of course you save on the print.

You can have private sections for each individual too so that people can access their own salary, benefits or commission information confidentially for example.

You can always make them available to download as a pdf. But if you do go for print - and you probably should if some or all of your staff are not desk workers with company computers of their own, a ring binder is a great option. Initial outlay may be more expensive but they can be reused and sections or pages can be added or removed. Even a nicely designed manila folder with pockets allows you to present your employees with a pack that includes the handbook as well as any contracts or agreements they might sign.

Getting the legalities right

Before you publish and distribute your handbook you should definitely get it looked over by a lawyer. Here at Tiger HR we work in partnership with our sister firm Tiger Law on this sort of project. It's seamless for you as a client and much more affordable and hassle-free than working with several providers.

We can in fact take the whole process on for you, and, working with our own creative agency undertake the entire project, including HR consultancy, legal oversight, design and copy, web development and print as a team of partners.

Distributing your handbook

When you present your new employee with their handbook, or indeed issue it to the existing team, it's very important to get them to sign to say they have received it from you. This is to protect you in case of later disputes. You want to be able to prove that you provided correct information.

Handbooks should be regularly reviewed to ensure they are up to date with current Employment Law and your own requirements and practices. Generally once a year is enough but you can also arrange with us to be notified if any new legislation or ruling comes up that affects your handbook and needs to be changed (this is when you will be glad to have a folder or digital format!). We do this as standard for our retainer clients.

You should require all employees to sign an acknowledgement that they have received and understood the update too. This can be done online through simple tick box style acceptance, similar to what you see on online Terms & Conditions, as long as it's properly set up through each person's individual password protected pages and you can retain a record it.

Whatever you do, don't forget to make sure everyone actually has signed or acknowledged, not forgetting people who are off on holiday or maternity leave etc. Set up a routine to chase those who haven't responded within a set period.

The great thing about getting people used to regularly signing for your handbook and its updates is it wakes them up to the idea that this is an important live document and one they can make use of and should pay attention to. If you take it seriously, they will know they should too.

15 minutes is all it takes

Book 15 minutes with Seb Mattern on the phone and he'll tell you how we can help you with your employee communications and onboarding.

Tiger HR: Ready to jump in when you need us

Tel: 01233 227 356

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Sebastian Mattern

Sebastian Mattern

Lead Consultant at Tiger HR
Seb is Tiger HR's Lead Consultant. He specialises in HR, Employment Relations and Employment Law providing a wide range of IHL clients with affordable solutions for everything from routine compliance to Dispute Management. He blogs on topics relating to every aspect of HR and Employment Law. He is an Associate of the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development
Sebastian Mattern

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