How to create an employee handbook that people will actually read

Anna Roberts & Phil Kendall

Dec 2022 ⋅ 5 min read

Woman wearing glasses and a light blue shift smiling while reading a paper document.

First impressions count โ€” especially when it comes to welcoming new employees to your business.

After taking the time to advertise, interview, and onboard, the last thing you want to do is to hand your latest hire a stack of written policies to wade through before they can start work.

Employee handbooks are one of the first documents staff will read when they join your business. They're absolutely vital if you want to protect both your business and your staff, but they're often a real chore to read โ€” which is why so few employees actually bother.

But there is good news โ€” it is possible to create a staff handbook that sets out all the necessary policies and procedures at your business while still being engaging for employees.

Here's how:

Employee handbooks aren't a legal requirement in the UK, but they can contain a written statement of employment particulars โ€” something that most employers will know is a legal requirement.

This statement should detail employee hours, the business name, start date, pay and hours, and where the employee will be working.

It should also include:

  • Holiday entitlement (and information how to request time off)
  • Information on notice periods
  • Any collective agreements (i.e. from trade unions or staff associations)
  • Who to go to with grievances, and how to complain about how grievances or disciplinary decisions are handled

Additionally, the statement should tell employees where to find:

Many employers choose to include these items within a written contract, an employee handbook, or on an internal company intranet.

(For an exhaustive list of legal requirements, head to Gov.uk.)

The structure of a staff handbook

Rows of social media icons on a mobile phone screen.

The policies and procedures mentioned above often find their home in a staff handbook, in addition to other optional policies such as:

  • Social media use*
  • Dress code
  • Flexible working
  • Online security and computer use
  • Shift swaps and rota planning

(*Don't miss our tips for managing employee social media use.)

Some staff handbooks are contractual and others are non-contractual โ€” many contain a section for each.

It's important to start your handbook with a note stating that some parts of the handbook are contractual (e.g. holiday entitlement and hours), while other sections aren't, and are therefore subject to change. You should also make it clear if the handbook has been created with input from a trade union.

paper plane icon

Managing a team? Try RotaCloud.

Build and share rotas, manage annual leave, and record staff attendance โ€” anytime, anywhere. Try RotaCloud free for 30 days, no credit card required.

The non-contractual segment doesn't need to cover policies alone. You might also want to extend the handbook's role in the onboarding process, and cover topics including:

  • Staff bios (with photos) of directors and senior staff.
  • Maps of the workplace, including staff break rooms, kitchens, toilet facilities, fire exits and where certain employee offices are.
  • Company values, explained in a clear and concise way.
  • Company culture. Are there any parts of your culture that may be unfamiliar or jarring to newcomers? It could also be worth including a workplace jargon glossary and explain the origin of any in-jokes to help new starters feel more welcome.
  • What to expect during the first week, month and year at the business.

Here are a couple of example structures:

Preface โ†’ Policies and procedures (contractual) โ†’ Values, culture, other processes (non-contractual)

Preface โ†’ Company values and culture โ†’ Summary of policies and procedures โ†’ New staff information (maps, bios etc.) โ†’ Policies and procedures in full

Alternatively, you could opt to combine the formal and informal parts throughout, ensuring the content flows in a logical manner and readers are less tempted to skip the "boring" parts.

Language, branding, and media

Close-up of a random selection of typed words on a black screen.

Your handbook contains some pretty important information that you need your staff to be familiar with. But it also tells new employees a lot about your company:

Was your friendly, relaxed approach to recruitment a facade?

Is the company really as dedicated to staff development as they suggested at the interview?

The best employee handbooks reiterate the company's values and goals. Depending on the content and purpose of your handbook, you might also want to reflect your company's brand in another way: language.

New hires at a solicitors or high-end estate agents will expect their employee handbooks to be formal. However, in some cases you can move away from your brand guidelines and opt for a different approach.

A conversational tone is easier to understand and more enjoyable to read than formal legalese, so if your goal is for staff to read your handbook from cover to cover, relax your normal communication guidelines and be a little friendlier.

The culture at your business might be quite different from that at video game studio Valve, but Valve's employee handbook [pdf] is well known for its presentation and approach to communicating content that could very easily have been page after page of business boilerplate, opting for informal language and clever design to both echo the company's values and encourage new hires to read, rather than skim, the handbook.

Be sure to include these design elements to add interest to your employee handbook:

  • Photos, illustrations and graphics.
  • Tables, graphs and bullet points to break up text.
  • Short paragraphs.
  • Subheadings.
  • Bold text within paragraphs.
  • Title and heading pages at the start of each section.

Additionally, consider creating a version of your staff handbook as an interactive PDF. Embed videos, add hyperlinks, and add cross-references to help readers jump back and forth within the document.

Reviewing & updating your handbook

Rows of serious-looking books on a bookshelf.

Ideally, you should review and update your employee handbook every six months โ€” or annually at the very least.

It should be updated to reflect recent changes to employment legislation and any new case law which suggests you should alter the wording of certain terms to avoid legal disputes that could negatively impact your business.

You should also refresh staff bios after promotions, new achievements, and if any staff have left the company โ€” the last thing new hires want to see is a bunch of faces that are no longer with the business.

Additionally, there may have been some issues with the disciplinary procedure at your company since you last drafted the document. Make updates to avoid confusion and clarify problem areas. If in doubt, speak with a legal or HR professional.

Remember: any parts of your handbook that constitute a contract cannot be changed without the agreement of both parties. Flexibility clauses can be used to make reasonable changes but employers should still consult with employees before implementing a planned change.

Summary

It'll take some effort to draw up and maintain an employee handbook that's actually pleasant to read. But in return for doing so, your new employees will enjoy a smooth, more effective onboarding process and easily integrate with your team and your culture โ€” it could even help reduce staff turnover at your business.

An employee handbook certainly isn't the only factor that contributes to the engagement of new hires, but a well-designed, concise handbook definitely won't hurt.

If you want your staff to understand how your business works โ€” and the policies that hold everything together โ€” make them easy to read. It's that simple.

Disclaimer: This blog post was created for informational purposes only and shouldn't be taken as legal advice.