Developing a new employee handbook

Consider process, purpose and structure of policy manuals

Developing a new employee handbook
Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl


Whether they’re called employee handbooks, employment manuals, staff manuals, policy manuals or something else, there are a number of important considerations that need to be explored before developing a new handbook or revising an existing one.

The first question is what to actually call the policy manual, since there is no specific requirement to use the term “employee handbook,” which can come across as rather old school. Because of that, many organizations have their own unique names for the collection of policies provided to all of their employees.

The following are some additional considerations that should be dealt with before embarking on the journey towards developing a new employee handbook. I will cover several more of these next week.

Process and stakeholders

One of the first considerations is the basic process you plan on following in putting together your handbook. Below are some of the questions that must be answered before determining how to approach the project.

Which stakeholders are you going to consult? Who will do the actual work of writing the policies? Are you going to use templates or develop everything from scratch? Who is going to lead the project? Does sufficient expertise exist in-house, or will you need to hire a consultant to do the work?

Putting together a project team or steering committee comprised of various members of the HR team is generally a good idea. However, it is also important to involve other stakeholders in the process such as finance, IT, marketing, corporate communications, facilities and perhaps one or two line managers and executives. It is also a good idea to approach the handbook development as a formal project with a charter, project plan, project manager, executive sponsor, scope and timelines.

Purpose, style and tone

Two of the most fundamental considerations in developing an employee handbook are the general purpose and overall tone of the document. While employment policy manuals should provide organizational context, set expectations, explain organizational rules and norms, facilitate compliance and help manage performance, many employers use their employee handbooks to help facilitate employee onboarding and socialization into the organization and branding the company as an employer of choice.

For that reason, it might not be a good practice to have a handbook that comes across as overly prescriptive or rule-bound. On the other hand, cultural considerations and the profile and history of the organization’s workforce may dictate that taking a “thou shalt not” approach is appropriate under the circumstances.

Workforce demographics and the nature of the industry will also have a part to play in determining the writing style to be used. Education, fluency, literacy and the type of work involved all determine the style and tone of the handbook. For example, a policy manual in a large law firm is going to read very differently from an employee handbook in a small cleaning company with mostly part-time employees.

Length, structure and format

Another important consideration is the length of the employee handbook. While small employers tend to have fewer and less sophisticated HR programs and therefore shorter employee handbooks, it doesn’t always work that way.

Paradoxically, small businesses sometimes have longer handbooks because they have fewer HR resources to provide guidance and interpretation, so they tend to spell out everything right in the policy manual. They also tend not to have separate HR policy manuals to refer to for further guidance.

Structure relates to the number, length and order of policies and the existence of sub-policies. Format is an important consideration with respect to printing options – if the handbook is even printed or is made available solely in electronic format.

Versions, supporting policies and multijurisdictional considerations

It may be necessary to develop multiple versions of an employee handbook for different lines of business or jurisdictions (particularly those outside Canada). Multiple jurisdictions can be also dealt with by including charts or separate sub-policies, developing policies that meet or exceed the most generous legislative requirements across jurisdictions (which can be tricky) or referring employees to HR for further guidance (particularly if only a handful of employees work in other jurisdictions).

As mentioned above, many organizations also create longer versions of policies along with accompanying procedures for inclusion in an HR policy manual. Some employers also create manager’s handbooks. However, in the interests of transparency, some organizations believe there should only be one version of their employment policies, which should be communicated to all employees.

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