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What’s in your handbook?

4 min read


This guest post is by Arte Nathan, a veteran HR professional with more than 30 years of practicing human resources, most of it as chief human resources officer for Golden Nugget and its successor companies, Mirage Resorts and Wynn Resorts. He now lives in Laguna Beach, where he consults, writes and teaches. Follow him on Twitter at @arte88.

Companies often put much effort and expense into their handbooks, and make a big show about having new employees agree that they’ll read and abide by what’s in them. However, these handbooks are often a waste of time and money. Here are some things I’ve learned over the years to make employee handbooks more effective:

  • Keep it simple. Slow down and write this as though you’re explaining it to your mother. Use bullets rather than long sentences, and use words that real people use everyday.  I’m not suggesting you don’t have your legal folks review it — just don’t let it read like a legal document.
  • Consider FAQs. Everywhere you look these days there are fact sheets and the popular Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). So get a group of managers or employees together, run your handbook by them and see what questions they ask. Amend the FAQs often.
  • Focus on the do’s, not the don’ts. We can be so quick to tell others what not to do, and then we assume that they know what, in fact, to do. Don’t make that assumption or mistake. If you want someone to do something — explain exactly what it is, and, again, why employees should do it. Framing things in the positive is more motivating and is more likely to be accepted.
  • Include lots of color and pictures. Everyone loves quick stories, lots of pictures and splashes of color. It’s not easy to put it together like this — especially given people’s assumptions about what an employee handbook should look like. The best handbook is the one that employees read and remember.
  • Use a conversational voice. This may be the hardest part — we’re all so schooled in writing professionally that we often overlook the fact that what we’ve written is confusing. Keep your points simple.
  • Don’t be so serious. This isn’t usually life and death. A handbook is there to provide some general direction and information. Go to any bookstore and look at how popular all of those books for “Dummies” are. Look at how they are written. There’s a reason that there are so many of these —  because they work!
  • Perfect is the enemy of progress. Most people obsess over making the handbook completely accurate and up to date. But let’s face it — as soon as it’s printed, it starts to become outdated. A better strategy is to have lots of other places where the things that change can be found, such as bulletin boards, e-mails, letters sent to employees, the company intranet, etc. Then, communicate to your employees what and where these are, and that it’s their responsibility to always check in any or all of these other places to be sure they have all the right information. In this fast-paced world, the best communications strategies employ multiple means of getting the message out in a timely, complete and completely accurate manner.
  • Write it in English. I know, it’s probably not politically correct to suggest this, but let’s face it — we’re in the U.S. and English is the dominant language. There’s nothing wrong with promoting its use. If you have employees who might struggle with this, consider English-as-a-second-language classes for them. Even better: Consider having supervisors learn Spanish. Take a pro-active approach to this.

A handbook is intended to be a good first overview of things; it’s not the only tool you’ll need to tell the complete story. Managers and supervisors have to follow up every day to make sure employees get all the information they need. Your handbook can be a good first step in making that happen — just make sure that it’s simple, cool and informative enough to ensure that your employees actually read it!