How to Write an Employee Handbook

employee handbook over wooden office table next to a pen and cup of coffee

An employee handbook is an important tool for communicating your policies, setting expectations and getting employees excited about your company values. 

If you’ve been using the same tired old employee handbook for the last ten years, it’s time to give it a refresh. You want your employee handbook to be engaging–something employees will actually read, not the stuff in a folder and dig out only when there’s a problem, or they’re ready to quit. 

Follow these tips for creating an employee handbook that covers practical new-hire information while capturing what makes your company unique. 

What to Include in Your Employee Handbook

An employee handbook isn’t just for giving instructions. In addition to sharing need-to-know information can also be an asset for engaging employees and helping them better understand the company they’ve decided to join. 

Here are some core sections that should be included in an employee handbook. 

  • Table of contents
  • Introduction/welcome statement
  • Company mission
  • Employment terms (i.e. exempt versus non-exempt, at-will employment, operating hours)
  • Legal topics (i.e. equal opportunity employment, anti-discrimination policies)
  • Compensation information
  • Benefits (i.e. health and insurance)
  • Time off policies (i.e. PTO, FMLA, etc.)
  • Employee code of conduct

Additional sections can be added at your discretion, depending on the style and length you’re going for. 

Some other topics you might cover if they’re relevant to your company, include:

  • Company history
  • Employee development opportunities
  • Bonus structure
  • Nondisclosure requirements
  • Noncompete policy
  • Social media policy
  • Dress code
  • Referral program
  • Recognition and reward programs

There’s no one structure that fits every company. Your handbook should be a reflection of your organization itself, so its contents should be customized accordingly.

Related: How to Design an Employee Benefits Plan

10 Steps for Writing an Effective Employee Handbook

1. Outline your policies

One great thing about writing or updating your employee handbook is that it forces you to get clear on your company policies (or create them if they don’t yet exist). 

For example, if you’re a small company, you might not have had reason to consider things like military leave or accommodating employees with disabilities. As you grow, however, these policies will become necessary. It’s better to have given them some thought ahead of time than to develop them on the fly. 

When developing your handbook outline, gather your stakeholders and take stock of your policies. Determine if you’re missing any or if anything needs revision. 

2. Choose the right format

The format of your employee handbook matters more than you might think in getting employees to actually read it. 

While it’s nice to have a hard copy to hand to new hires during orientation, this requires them to remember to sit down and crack it open at some later point, which probably won’t be high on their list of priorities after a jam-packed first day on the job. Also, physical documents are costly to update and reprint. 

Instead, consider a digital format like a PDF, flipbook, or interactive website. Digital handbooks are searchable, easy to update, and convenient to refer back to at any time. Plus, you can send it via email once they’ve accepted your job offer to build excitement ahead of their first day of work. 

3. Use clear, action-oriented language

All too often, employee handbooks read as a lawyer wrote them. Nothing against lawyers–they can and should be involved in the process of creating your policies. But legalese doesn’t make for very engaging reading. 

Writing your employee handbook should be left to someone with a deep understanding of your company’s culture and brand voice. 

Describe your policies in clear, direct language. So, instead of this dry, corporate-speak anti-harassment policy:

[Company] is committed to maintaining an environment free from harassment, bullying, or discriminatory conduct.

Use a statement like this instead:

We don’t tolerate harassment of any kind. 

Direct language makes your handbook more enjoyable to read and makes your policies easier to understand.

4. Highlight your culture

Your employee handbook is one of the first company documents that a new hire will experience. It’s a valuable opportunity to set the tone for the work environment and how employees communicate with one another. Your word choices and tone of voice should be reflective of these things. 

Also, consider the message you’re conveying visually. Instead of a black-and-white text-on-the-page document, consider leveraging a graphic designer to make the document aesthetically appealing and help the sections flow together smoothly. 

5. Make the most important information easy to find

Employees are most likely to be looking for key information in your handbook: pay, time off, and benefits. Make these sections prominent and easy to find, and be especially mindful of making the information in them easy to understand.

Use visuals to help communicate complex information like the employee-employer cost sharing of different health plans or how your retirement contribution structure is set up. When you lay out these vital details clearly in your handbook, you’ll reduce the time your HR reps spend fielding inquiries for basic information. 

6. Emphasize the positives

Sure, the readers of your handbook are already employees, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use it to continue building your employer brand. Include content that emphasizes the selling points of working for your company–those same things you work to highlight in your recruitment marketing. 

Employee referral bonuses, perks like gym memberships or tuition reimbursement, and employee development opportunities are all worth highlighting in your handbook. This is not only useful to build engagement but is important in making sure employees actually know the benefits exist. 

Related: How to Make Your Employee Referral Program a Powerful Recruitment Tool

7. Make it a team effort

Creating an employee handbook usually falls to HR, but the most effective handbooks are a collaborative effort. You have diverse talent on your team–creative thinkers, copywriters, designers, marketers, and so on. Why not tap that talent for an internal project: improving your handbook?

Additionally, gather feedback from department chairs and the C-suite. You might learn about frequent employee questions your handbook doesn’t address or policies you’ve yet implemented. 

8. Loop in legal

While we’re not big fans of handbooks written mainly by lawyers, we do strongly advocate for looping them into the creation process. 

As you plan your handbook content, have your legal counsel weigh in on whether you’ve covered all your bases in the eyes of the law. Once it’s finished, ask them to give it a final once-over before you begin distributing it. 

9. Get feedback from actual employees

You wouldn’t launch a new product without getting feedback from test users, so why would you hit the proverbial ‘publish’ button on your handbook without getting feedback from test readers? 

Before putting your handbook out far and wide, get the first draft in the hands of a few team members and collect their thoughts on structure, style, readability, and usefulness. 

10. Keep optimizing

Just as your company is always evolving and changing, so too should your handbook. 

Revisit it for edits at least annually, or any time you undergo a major company change. This will ensure it’s always up to date and the content doesn’t feel stale. 

Creating an excellent employee handbook takes more time than just copying and pasting an employee handbook template that you found online. Still, the final product will go much farther in making a positive impression on new hires and providing the essential information your employees actually need to be productive and happy at work. 

Peter Porebski

About Peter Porebski

Peter Porebski is the Operations Manager at 4 Corner resources. A graduate of the University of Central Florida he has over 10 years of operations and process improvement experience with 7 being in the Human resources and staffing industry. In previous roles he worked to manage and analyze production flow trends and determine areas of improvement in quality control for the commercial retail industry. His areas of interest include web development, information technology, data analysis and reporting. He lives in Orlando, Florida with his wife and two cats.