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The ultimate guide to writing your employee handbook

March 31, 2022 - 20 min read

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What is an employee handbook?

When to create an employee handbook

5 steps to writing an employee handbook

How to ensure your employee handbook is inclusive

5 key takeaways to create an effective employee handbook

Creating an employee handbook is no easy feat. 

But it’s an important feat — and one that should be crafted with care. Many organizations use employee handbooks as the single source of truth for the company’s programs, core values, policies, and more. 

It’s instrumental for reinforcing positive behaviors and company guidelines. But it’s also useful as a resource and source of information.

An employee handbook is often distributed to new employees during the onboarding process. This helps the employee acclimate and understand clear expectations, guidelines, and responsibilities. 

But beyond reinforcing positive behaviors, an employee handbook can help save your HR team valuable time. A handbook is often self-service — the onus is on the employee to read, digest, and absorb.

When you find yourself answering yet again what the company policy on business class airplane tickets is, how to add a spouse for benefits, or how to hire an intern, you know it’s time for a handbook.

In this piece, you’ll learn more about what’s included in an employee handbook. You’ll also learn how to write an employee handbook — and why the handbook is important to the employee experience

What is an employee handbook?

An employee handbook is a document that includes information employees need to know. An employee handbook may have other names, like the staff manual or an employee manual. But at its core, an employee handbook houses policies, guidelines, employment agreements, and more. 

An employee handbook also is the one-stop shop for things like the company holiday schedule or employee benefits. It’s often distributed to employees as part of their new hire checklist. Many organizations require employees to read the handbook in full as part of their onboarding process. 

Why is an employee handbook important? 

An employee handbook is important for a number of reasons. It’s good to understand that an employee handbook is beneficial for both employees and the organization. Here are seven reasons why an employee handbook is important: 

  • It sets clear expectations with supporting documentation. 
  • It reinforces company culture and the company’s core values
  • It helps enforce policies and guidelines, especially when things go wrong. 
  • It helps employees find benefits, programs, and resources easily. 
  • It helps the company save time on communicating key programs, benefits, and resources. 
  • It ensures your organization is up-to-date on all compliance and legal requirements. 
  • It protects your company from liability. 

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What to include in an employee handbook

An employee handbook can feel daunting. I spent a chunk of my career in internal communication. I remember the first time I had to review and edit an employee handbook. With pages and pages of content, it can feel overwhelming to think about writing one from scratch. 

But with a little help with some SMART goal setting, it’s definitely possible. Here are four things you should include in an employee handbook. 

Policies (including policies you should include as required by law) 

First, call up your legal team. The first step is to familiarize yourself with federal, state, and local employment laws.

The U.S. Department of Labor shares all information for employers about federal laws in the workplace on its site. This may be especially tricky if your company operates in more than one state. If that’s the case, it might require different content to account for different state laws.* 

But once you’ve figured out what your organization is legally required to include, identify other helpful content. We’ve outlined some policies that are worth researching and considering. 

  • Equal employment opportunity and non-discrimination policies 
  • Family medical leave policies (FMLA) 
  • Worker’s compensation policies 
  • Other policies that are pertinent to your business 
  • Code of conduct
  • Employment classifications (including pay adjustments, merit increases, promotions, and more)
  • Health, safety, and security (especially in the wake of COVID-19)
  • Any COVID-19 related policies (including return-to-work or back-to-office policies)
  • Travel and expense policies
  • Security and confidentiality policies 
  • Whistleblower policy 
  • Employment separation and other employment policies 

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Benefits 

I think we’ve all worked at companies where you spend more time looking for information on your benefits than you’d care to admit. It’s a pain point for the employee experience and can even hurt employee engagement and benefit program enrollments. 

Your employee handbook should also be a reference point for your benefit offerings. Similar to employment laws, your benefits will likely vary by state or country. Make sure you’re including all necessary information on important benefits

If you’re not creating content that the regular employee can digest, they might not even try to take advantage of the offering. Here are 19 benefit programs to consider including in your employee handbook. 

  • Your paid-time-off policy (including unlimited PTO
  • Your company’s paid holiday schedule 
  • Parental leave policies 
  • Paid sick leave policies (including bereavement leave
  • Long- and short-term disability benefits 
  • Flexible spending accounts 
  • Available health insurance packages (including COBRA) 
  • Employee wellness benefits
  • Leave of absence programs
  • Employee retirement or 401(K) programs
  • Coaching program benefits, like how to enroll with BetterUp
  • Any additional benefit offerings, like volunteer time off or learning stipends 
  • Pay period and payroll (including payroll deductions) 
  • Work schedule and work environment 
  • Annual performance review schedules 
  • Jury duty policies 
  • Medical leave act policies 
  • Life insurance 
  • Military leave 

This is, of course, a non-exhaustive list of benefits to include. Every company has its unique benefit offerings. Work with your HR team to make sure all benefit programs are included in the employee handbook. 

Company culture and history 

This section of the employee handbook can likely be the introduction. Oftentimes, companies will include a brief history of the organization. How was it founded? Why was the company created? What’s the mission and purpose? 

Then, you can talk about company culture and core values. This helps humanize the policies and programs you’ve included in your handbook. It’s likely that the programs and policies you’ve put in place are reflections of your company’s culture and core values. It’s important to make that connection for employees to see how your culture comes to life

For example, BetterUp was founded with a deep sense of purpose. We’re on a mission to help people everywhere live with greater purpose, clarity, and passion. As such, we’ve created employee programs like paid volunteer time off or $1,000 learning stipends to help live out our mission. 

employee-handbook-two-employees-laughing-at-work

Our company’s story is an important piece of why we do what we do. It’s also critical that we share the founding story in the handbook to be able to connect some of the offerings to the why behind our work. 

Our handbook leads with our core values, our purpose, and our mission. Then, it gets into the nitty-gritty program and policy details. By framing the handbook like this, the employee is first introduced to the foundation of the company. Then, they’re better equipped to understand the why behind some of the programs or policies in place. 

Employee experience and culture programs 

We know the handbook isn’t the most exciting read for employees but it’s an important one. You might consider adding other culture or employee engagement programs.

This is another way to reinforce your company’s culture and core values. It can also help “liven” up the employee handbook. Some examples include: 

When to create an employee handbook

Let’s face it: creating an employee handbook is a lot of work. But it’s crucial for organizations to have an employee handbook at the ready. 

We think it’s in your best interest to create an employee handbook sooner than later. There’s much more risk involved the longer you wait to create one. 

But we’re not in the business of offering legal advice. Work with your legal and HR experts to help identify when your business is ready for an employee handbook. Your legal and HR professionals will be able to advise when it’s best for your company.*  

How to write an employee handbook

By now, hopefully, you have a good idea of what you want to include in your handbook. Now, it’s time to write it. Before your brain freezes with writer’s block (yes, speaking from experience, it happens), don’t fret. We’ve got five steps to help guide you through the process: 

1. Consult your legal and HR teams on what you need to include 

Get the list of “must-haves” from your legal and HR folks. Oftentimes, it might be someone in HR writing the handbook. But regardless, make sure you’ve captured everything you need to legally include. 

Then, source the “nice-to-have” list. From there, you can start to assemble the content in a way that makes sense. 

2. Identify a project owner 

Make sure someone is on the hook for making the handbook happen. If there are too many cooks in the kitchen or confusion around ownership, the project could be at risk. 

As mentioned, it’s common for the handbook to be owned by human resources. Identify the owner and work with the owner to make sure they have the necessary resources to do the job well. Then, that owner will work to develop a team to help execute on key responsibilities. 

3. Keep it as simple and accessible as possible 

There’s a lot of information in the handbook. And employees are busy with their jobs. Try to keep the content as simple and easy to digest as possible, especially when the content is dense. 

Consider working with your internal communication team to help refine the language. Your comms pros can help adjust and make sure the handbook is as digestible as possible. 

4. Get feedback, reviews, and approvals 

The employee handbook has a lot of necessary, important information. Make sure you’re asking for feedback once you’ve finalized the first draft. 

When I helped assemble an employee handbook at a previous company, we had a number of folks review it. This included legal, a few folks in HR, program owners (i.e. the D&I team for any diversity, equity, and inclusion mentions), and more. 

Gather feedback on the experience and make sure the handbook is easily accessible. With the power of feedback, you can make the handbook the best it can be. 

5. Update the handbook regularly 

Things change, fast. The employee handbook shouldn’t be kept on a shelf for the dust to gather. Generally, it’s a good practice to update the handbook annually. But if there are big announcements, changes, or policy changes, it’s a good habit to update the handbook. 

The good thing is that now, employee handbooks are digital. They’re often housed on internal intranets or some other digital website. And as my boss says about digital publications, the ink doesn’t dry. They’re no longer static — you can update and maintain the handbook more easily than before. 

They’re also searchable. You can treat your employee handbook like a mini-Google search engine chock full of company-wide information. It’s also important to update employees when changes have been made. This can help reinforce trust and psychological safety

One employee handbook example we really liked was Valve

employee-handbook-woman-at-computer

How to ensure your employee handbook is inclusive

When employees don’t feel like they belong, you’re already at risk of losing great talent. That’s important to remember when crafting your employee handbook. Here are three ways you can ensure your employee handbook is inclusive: 

5 key takeaways to create an effective employee handbook

By now, you should feel more comfortable tackling your company’s employee handbook. Here are five key takeaways to keep in mind: 

  1. Seek expert advice, especially for legal and HR requirements 
  2. Make sure you include all necessary information 
  3. Keep it as simple and accessible as possible 
  4. Gather feedback and make sure it’s inclusive 
  5. Update and refresh it annually 

Keep your mission statement in mind. How does your culture show up in the handbook? What does your employee handbook say about your company values? 

Start writing your employee handbook 

Your full-time employees and non-exempt employees alike need the foundation of an employee handbook. If you’re a small business or a global corporate, it’s important to prevent disciplinary action. And one way to make sure your employees are set for success is by creating an employee handbook. 

There are many aspects to creating an employee handbook that requires extra support. It’s very cross-functional, can take many levels of approvals, and can be stressful. It can also be a guideline for behavior when you need it for employee terminations

How are you supporting your employees to do their best work? Do they have access to resources, like virtual coaching, to help navigate the sticky parts? In what ways can you help unlock the potential of your workforce

Consider BetterUp. With BetterUp, you can provide individualized support for your employees. And with BetterUp, your employees can live with greater purpose, clarity, and passion. 

*This content is made available by BetterUp for educational and inspirational purposes only as well as to provide general information and a general understanding of the covered topics, not to provide specific advice. All content is provided AS IS and may not be relied upon. By using this website site you understand that there is no direct relationship created between you and BetterUp in regards to the content. This blog should not be used as a substitute for competent professional advice.

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Published March 31, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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