4 Mistakes Companies Make With Their Employee Handbooks

Whether you’re writing your employee handbook for the first time or looking to fix a broken one, these are some common mistakes every HR department should look out for.

At ConnectedHR, we work with businesses and organizations every day to create and implement their employee handbooks. In this article, we cover common mistakes companies make when creating and implementing their employee handbooks. 

Waiting Until You Need a Handbook

First of all, every company, of any size, needs a handbook. That’s not the question. The question is “How do we develop one?”.

There are two common ways that companies develop their handbooks:

  1. Companies can either research and write one/have one written.
  2. Companies develop it over time based on the experiences and needs of the company.

They both sound good, but writing a handbook as your company encounters problems is absolutely the wrong way to do it.

Waiting for any reason to develop a handbook eliminates its most vital purpose. You can’t prevent a lawsuit after it happens. Your employees shouldn’t need to assume things about your company, and before you think “Some things are obvious” remember that every office, and every person, is different and your version of “obvious” is not shared by everybody. A company that depends on an unwritten understanding of conduct is opening themselves up to litigation.

Furthermore, the content within a handbook is often referenced in these lawsuits, and employers can use such writing as an effective defense. It’s a tool. Use it.

Overdoing Your Employee Handbook

Think about every employee handbook you’ve ever been given. Did you read it or flip through it? These books are often huge stacks of papers bundled together in outlining every legal statute and minutiae that impacts your decision for each particular policy. Those handbooks don’t get read, and they’re difficult to reference when you need to.

A well-written employee handbook should be under 100 pages long. If it takes more than one paragraph to explain the dress code, you’re doing it wrong. When it comes to more complex issues (ie. harassment, FMLA, etc), definitely elaborate enough to be clear. Keep in mind, a long-winded section won’t be read, and you may as well not have written it.

Making It Only About Policies

You want your handbook to be read. Focus on the reader- think about who they are. Typically, this is a new hire. They’re being handed a lot of different material, possibly training, possibly dealing with a bunch of other manuals. A handbook isn’t needed every day, and it won’t be read if it’s too dry. You may not make it interesting, but it doesn’t have to be boring.

Some ways you can add some personality to your handbook include:

  • Talk about company culture and mission
  • Explain what you envision for the company
  • Write a welcome
  • Share your stories about the company
  • Share important learning moments you’ve experienced
  • Focus on the culture
  • Focus on your mission
  • Focus on the lessons that define what those are and why.

There’s a difference between boilerplate rules and regulations, and the thoughts of the CEO. The latter is far more interesting to your employees.

Not Taking It Seriously

An employee handbook can be done internally. If you’ve already set up a fully functioning HR department, if you’ve worked with HR policy in the past, you can absolutely write the handbook yourself. You likely have the experience to do so, and the resources to have an in-house lawyer, or other qualified people, evaluate the sections that deal closely with litigation and worker’s rights. If you can handle all that, you’ll likely be all set.

The wrong way to do it is the way that involves you, someone who may be an expert on your company but not on employment laws, taking an afternoon to whip up twenty pages of “handbook” that sounds good and “should do the trick”. It may seem cheaper, and easier, but it’s not cheaper if it lands you in court, and it’s not easier if it doesn’t do its job. A proper handbook is a concerted effort by a professional HR department to communicate expectations and policy to the employees. It’s so much more than an outline or a “Welcome” message, and treating it like one won’t do you any good.

Writing an employee handbook is hard, but it needs to be done. It needs to be thorough, but brief. You have to relay vital information and make sure your reader is paying attention.


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