Down with Employee Handbooks!

How many of us have started a new job by spending an absurd amount of time filling out paperwork and “acknowledging receipt” of policies and procedures that would, if read in full, make for good insomnia treatment? Among the policies and procedures, we almost always receive the “employee handbook”—a tome that has long been misnamed. It’s not really a handbook because it’s not really practical in any sense. It IS filled with policies and procedures one is likely never to use, and it is driven, in so many cases, more by liability management than by a desire to truly onboard new employees. What a wasted opportunity!

Employee Handbooks Should Be Actual Guidebooks!

Our team at Outside Angle focuses on the humans at the center of all organizations. To that end, we’re always looking for ways to make best use of peoples’ precious time and set them up for success whenever possible.

The employee guidebook is an enormous opportunity to set the true tone for a team and help people better understand an organization’s culture on their very first day. Especially for remote organizations and those with multiple offices, this tool can make sure that implicit norms become explicit statements.

Our clients have used employee guidebooks to launch new organizations on the right foot, help transform the culture of existing organizations, and codify the things they want to scale as they face moments of transition. They think of guidebooks as a modality for communicating all the things that everyone in the organization would tell a new person if they all had time to sit down for coffee to welcome them.

How to Leverage Your Guidebook for Good

Employee guidebooks that are actually helpful focus on telling the story of the organization in a way that reflects shared values, expectations, and behaviors. Our clients are including sections like:

  1. Getting to Know Us: This section includes a warm welcome, a brief history, a statement (and explanation of) values, and a concise summary of why the organization exists and what it does. Sometimes it includes a high-level description of products or services that help connect the “why” and the “what” of the organization in concrete terms.
  2. Who We Are: This section typically includes introductions to key staff, an organizational chart, unique terms of art, phrases, or abbreviations, and who to turn to for help. Sometimes it includes an introduction to key partners and collaborators, board members, and investors. This section also typically helps new employees learn how to introduce themselves to others.
  3. How We Work Together: This section describes the culture explicitly. It may include such subsections as “Startup life!”, “Asks and Expectations”, “Rituals”, “Phrases We Like”, “Where and When We Work”, “Feedback and Performance”, or “Tech Tools and How We Use Them”, “Meetings and Meeting Cycles”. This section is truly unique to the organization and sometimes even idiosyncratic to leaders. That’s ok! The idea is to make the implicit explicit.
  4. Benefits and More: Everyone likes to know but hates to ask logistical questions. This section helps answer some questions, and also sheds light on how to get answers to others. Items in this section might include policies and practices around PTO and Sick Days (even though you have unlimited leave, what’s the norm?), Vacations and Holidays, Other Time Off, Benefits, Travel, Payroll, Purchasing and other policies that do often show up in a traditional handbook. Our clients try to address these things in an on-brand, fun, and user-friendly way.

Taking this approach, organizations gain clarity on their cultural identity, allowing them to craft a culture guide that aligns with their vision and values. (See below for examples from Zoobean and Maine Connectivity Authority.)

Making a Guidebook Is as Useful as Having a Guidebook

Creating a culture guide isn’t just about the final product; it’s about the journey of self-discovery and alignment that the organization goes through. Here’s how the process typically unfolds:

  1. Cultural Assessment: Organizations start by sharing and organizing artifacts and perspectives that shed light on their current culture and their vision. This step can include surveys, interviews, and workshops to gather input from employees at all levels, or just a handoff and download. This data helps create a first draft filled with “hypotheses”.
  2. Crafting the Guide: Creating a complete first draft quickly helps identify the parts of the culture that are already clear, and those that are less so. That way, the team guiding this effort can spend their time where it is necessary to reconcile differences of opinion or push for additional clarity, and not in places where there is already a high level of alignment.
  3. Discussion and Decisions: Facilitated sessions help the leadership team or steering group make decisions and fill in content gaps. During this step, “hypotheses” are refined and strengthened. Often this requires a collaborative effort, incorporating input from various stakeholders to ensure that it accurately reflects the organization’s culture .
  4. Feedback and Iteration: The draft guide is shared with employees for feedback, and any necessary revisions are made. This iterative process helps refine the guide and ensures that it resonates with the workforce as “hypotheses” turn into “decisions”.
  5. Training and Implementation: Once finalized, the employee guidebook is introduced to employees through training sessions and integrated into onboarding processes. It becomes a living document that informs daily decisions and behaviors.

Even after this process is completed, the guidebook remains a living document. Updates are typically made semiannually or annually.

How To Use a Great Guidebook

A well-crafted culture guide serves various purposes within an organization:

  1. Onboarding: It becomes an essential tool for onboarding new hires, helping them quickly grasp the company’s culture and values.
  2. Accountability: The guide sets clear expectations for behavior and performance, making it a valuable reference point for holding employees accountable.
  3. Alignment: It fosters alignment among teams and departments by providing a shared understanding of the organization’s vision, culture, and practices.
  4. Source of Truth: The culture guide serves as a source of truth about how the organization works together. It minimizes misunderstandings and promotes a consistent culture.

Keep It Alive

Employee guidebooks present a critical opportunity to set the tone for an organization, but they should also be living documents that grow and evolve with the organization. Change happens regularly and rapidly, and losing track of the variety of ways that organizations can keep everyone on the same page is always a danger in face-paced environments.

Leverage the employee guidebook for your organization to keep everyone up to date, to regularly engage employees, and to evaluate when and how to make changes—either to the guidebook or to behaviors that may have gone off track. Our most precious resource is our time, so remember to make everything you do—including policy exercises like guidebooks—count!