Employee Handbooks Suck!


I sent this tweet out a few days ago and not surprisingly, no one responded positively (there were a few funny ones, I admit). But just to clarify for the readers: employee handbooks can be great tools for the workforce! However, most fall short of the mark for two main reasons:
  1. The content is boring-most handbooks are written from the perspective of managing risk. For example, most have a section on harassment, drug use, and discrimination. Aside from being important on its own (it highlights to employees that the company provides a safe environment) these policies are included so that employers can show those outside the organization that it doesn’t tolerate certain behaviors. It therefore reduces its exposure to lawsuits, negative publicity, and similarly damaging forces. When it comes to risk management it’s the HR or Legal team that usually owns this so who better than to write these policies? Big mistake; legalese is a specialized language (similar to government laws-when was the last time you read one?) that’s guaranteed to cause people’s eyes to glaze over. Boring.
  2. The delivery method is limiting-most companies tailor their recruitment and retention strategies to the different audiences they serve. A basic example is the difference between recruiting senior-level executives and entry-level employees. For seniors, a recruiter may utilize a national search firm, whereas to fill an entry-level position might only require a local advertisement. Yet when they both are hired what do they get? Either a paper handbook, or a log in which allows them to view it on the company’s intranet. Boring-is it any wonder that no one reads it?
So here’s my suggestion for making handbooks better:
  1. Change the tone. Language is powerful; instead of focusing on what employees shouldn’t be doing, why can’t handbooks focus on what they should be doing, which is to meet or exceed the company’s expectations? And just like a good handbook draws a clear line between poor behavior and punishments (“…failure to comply with this policy may result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination.”) a better one would do the same with regards to exceptional performance (“if you consistently meet or exceed company expectations regarding key metrics, you may have the opportunity to be rewarded in the following ways…”). Which quote is more motivating?
  2. Give it a marketing budget. PDFs are cheap, as is paper. Both are boring and don’t acknowledge that people consume and retain information differently. A great employee handbook should be constructed and distributed through a variety of mediums. Is your workforce always on the road? Then create a podcast that they can listen to in the car or on their Ipod. Do they spend a lot of time in front of a computer? Then maybe it should be interactive; then it becomes a training tool as well as being informative. My point is that a one-size-fits-all approach to employee handbooks doesn’t work anymore. Mix it up and see what works and with whom if the goal is to actually have employees read, understand, and most importantly, actually use the handbook.
So these are my thoughts on employee handbooks. They’re good tools that can be so much better, provided that the language is revamped and the delivery method is better suited to its target audience.
So what’s your opinion on employee handbooks? Leave a comment!


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